WESTMINSTER, Colo. — Things are slowly bouncing back from the pandemic at Front Range Community College.
But for students like Kaitlyn Young, who started her first semester in the spring of 2020, the experience is still a little weird.
“Just wearing a mask, it feels like, it’s like the same everywhere. Whenever I smile at someone in the hall or something, it’s just awkward,” Young said.
Her classes are likely smaller, too. According to a National Student Clearinghouse Research Center report, college enrollment has been down 6.5% across the board since the pandemic’s onset. For community colleges, that number is 14%.
“If enrollment numbers continued to drop, that puts economic stress on the college,” said Andy Dorsey, Front Range Community College president.
He says that the school’s numbers haven’t been as bad. They were down 3.5% last year, and this year they're down half a percent. It’s not huge, but he hopes most of those students come back.
“You’ve got entry-level jobs going for $17, $18, $19 an hour. They had their incomes disrupted over the last year. That’s probably pretty important to them. In the long run, I hope we can encourage them to give college another look because, in the long run, they’ll have a better income chance if they get more education,” Dorsey said.
The pandemic has impacted community colleges across the country in ways other than enrollment, even in paradise.
“We’ve had 16 faculty resign or retire,” said Frankie Harriss, the vice-chancellor of academic affairs at Kauai Community College.
Sixteen faculty members represent 22% of her staff. She says that and the pandemic has impacted their enrollment numbers.
“We had an 18% drop in our working adults and 15% in our school-age students who would transfer,” Harriss said.
Some groups are being impacted more than others.
“We’ve seen a drop in first-generation, lower-income students,” Dorsey said.
“We see them most acutely among first-generation college students, Pell recipients and students of color, and we know the pandemic did not impact communities equally,” said Cecilia Orphan, a professor at the University of Denver focusing on higher education.
She says there are a ton of benefits to going to and finishing college.
“The number of jobs that are going to be available for people who don’t have any college is shrinking, and we have a growth in the number of jobs that require some college, and so with these kinds of declines create long-term economic impacts,” Orphan said.
Dorsey wants people to know there is an inexpensive education option out there.
“A community college is remarkably affordable," Dorsey said. "For a $5,000 investment, they can get a skill set that can carry them forward for many years."