Amid COVID-19 pandemic, community college enrollments across the country fell 10% from fall 2019 to fall 2020, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.
Locally, the region’s community colleges were not spared by the dwindling number.
A total of 8,400 students attended Spokane Community College last fall, down almost 4,100 – or about 33% – from the previous year. Likewise, the number of students (4,260) who attended Spokane Falls Community College in fall 2020 was down almost 1,100 from the previous year, or 20%.
At North Idaho College in Coeur d’Alene, the college registered 4,741 students in fall 2020 – down 331 from 2019, according to college enrollment data.
In comparison, enrollment in the region’s four-year colleges and universities has fluctuated much smaller from year to year.
SFCC President Kimberlee Messina said community college students generally come from populations that are particularly vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic. While the college has provided increased virtual access, Messina said students face other barriers, such as increased difficulties supporting their families.
“Despite the increased financial aid from the federal stimulus and excellent scholarship opportunities, students cannot attend university in the same number before COVID,” Messina said in a statement.
“While many of our students report that the flexibility of virtual learning allows them to continue their education during this time, there are other students for whom the online environment is simply not adequate. “
Kevin Brockbank, President of the SCC, concurred with the Messina assessment.
Messina said university officials have tried to ease the burden by eliminating placement tests and fees. She also said the college is engaging with K-12 partners and the community to promote their retraining programs as “the best way” to boost the economy for those who have lost their jobs.
Ultimately, Messina believes the state of the COVID-19 pandemic and the availability of vaccines will be the main factors in returning students to university.
“The employment data from the pandemic clearly shows that the people who suffer the most are those with no university education,” Messina said. “We anticipate a return to college, especially community college, which will be very likely, and we look forward to welcoming the students back in and helping them and our region in their economic recovery.”
Graydon Stanley, vice president of student services at NIC, said the uncertainty surrounding how colleges can deliver classes amid the pandemic is certainly a factor.
“It’s like wanting to buy a car while it’s still on the assembly line and you don’t know what it will look like,” he said.
Beyond the pandemic, Stanley said community colleges continue to struggle to attract students as an entrepreneurial option into potentially lucrative careers – something institutions have been dealing with for years.
Part of that effort for the NIC involved the college’s re-recruitment initiative. Stanley said the program involves reaching out to former students who for some reason left without completing their degrees, with many credits to come.
“We now have about 18 different modes of teaching, compared to three before,” he said.
“We just had to adapt to how and when we offer our educational offerings to our students. It’s not just a temporary thing. This will continue to help us even when we are out of the pandemic. “
The Associated Press contributed to this report.