Past Recessions Led More Kansans To Community Colleges, But Not This Time

Nov 2, 2020

Kansas community colleges should be having a good year.

No crowded, germy dorms. Most of their students don’t need to travel. Plus, community colleges are cheaper and normally thrive in a bad economy.

Instead, they actually lost students. Enrollment fell more than 14% this fall. That’s causing the experts who track the industry to wonder about past assumptions.

“I thought the effect of COVID would be to increase community college enrollments,” said Richard Vedder, a distinguished professor of economics emeritus at Ohio University. “I completely misjudged.”

Now two months into the school year, colleges and experts point to a few reasons why community colleges are having such a bad year.

Online classes

Students just don’t like online classes. A survey conducted by the Strada Education Network found more than 70% of students said online instruction hurt their ability to learn. Yet the coronavirus has made them a necessity.

Community colleges aren’t the only schools shifting much of their classes online. Universities have done the same. Yet their enrollment only fell 3.5%.

It could come down to quality issues — or at least a perception of them. Fairly or not, community colleges suffer a reputation as off-brand higher education. That combined with online class concerns could be keeping students away.

“They have an image problem,” Vedder said. “It’s one that is not easily rectified.”

School’s Out

A large chunk of the enrollment numbers at several Kansas community colleges comes from high school students. School districts and community colleges often partner up to let high schoolers earn college credit. Johnson County Community College says about one in five of its students during a normal year are high schoolers.

That became a problem when public school districts in Johnson County delayed reopenings until after Labor Day. Closed schools meant high schoolers weren’t taking college courses either.

While JCCC’s enrollment fell more than 24% this fall, the college blames most of that drop on school districts’ late start. Enrollment has been steadily climbing back up now that high schoolers are back in class.

That doesn’t explain the steep drop at every college — some just don’t have that many high school students while others pull from districts that didn’t delay reopening.

Still, that means by the end of the semester, JCCC’s 24% drop will more likely be around 7% — still much worse than the universities, but it beats losing nearly a quarter of your students.

“It’s a big scenario difference,” said Andy Bowne, the president of JCCC. “If our revenue was 24% off, we’d be having very different conversations than what we’re having today.”

A different kind of recession

For years, higher education officials in Kansas blamed dwindling enrollment on a good economy. Usually, it takes the economy going south to get people rushing to community colleges for retraining. That’s what happened after the 2008 recession.

But 2020 isn’t following the standard recession playbook.

“They’ll say things like, ‘Well, you know, I just decided I would wait,’” said Kimberly Krull, the president at Butler County Community College. “‘I’m just kind of deciding to wait to see what happens.’”

Kansans don’t know if their jobs will return when a coronavirus vaccine becomes widely available.

So thousands of would-be students are waiting, saving their time and money for when the economy — and their prospects in it — become clearer.

Uneven pain

Community colleges attract a different crowd than the universities. The students tend to be older. They’re working on their degrees part time. They usually have less money.

And they’re more likely to have seriously suffered from this recession.

It’s not just that traditional community college students can no longer afford tuition. They’re also dealing with other complications brought on by the pandemic.

If they have children, they must help their kids with their own COVID-disrupted education. They might be the only ones who can take care of family members affected by, or vulnerable to, the virus. Kansans that can’t afford a quality computer or internet connection won’t bother with an online class.

“A basic online class assumes someone is going to have a computer,” said Will Doyle, a professor of public policy at Vanderbilt University. “That’s a big assumption.”

Stephan Bisaha reports on education and young adult life for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @SteveBisaha or email him at bisaha (at) kmuw (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on the health and well-being of Kansans, their communities and civic life.

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