PHOENIX – Peniella Irakoze is calling a list of 1,001 fellow students who have not returned to Phoenix College this semester and reviewing how they are doing during the coronavirus pandemic.
The calls have become a part of their job at a community college, like others in the US who have seen a significant drop in enrollments as students face financial, family, and virtual learning problems.
“I didn’t realize so many people were having problems,” said Irakoze, 20, who is studying medical laboratory science and works part-time for the college. “So many students don’t come back.”
According to the National Student Clearinghouse, enrollments in community colleges that offer two-year degrees and professional training and often attract senior students looking to learn new skills fell 10% from Fall 2019 to Fall 2020.
They were hardest hit of all colleges, and four-year universities saw only minor declines, beating many predictions that the outcome would be worse.
Freshman enrollment in colleges across the country is falling amid a pandemic
While it came as no surprise that fewer freshmen enrolled in four-year colleges and community colleges and delayed studying until campus reopened fully, the pandemic took a much higher toll on older adult students who frequently take the community college route . Many have lost their jobs or do not have time for their own school as they oversee their children’s online classes.
“Most of them work, many of them in industries that have been decimated by the pandemic,” said Martha Parham, senior vice president of the American Association of Community Colleges. “Trying to find your way around it and take lessons is a very daunting challenge right now.”
Depression and anxiety also disrupted the academic careers of community college students, including Stephanie Cruz Vazquez.
She said her intense fear was so compounded by her virus concerns that last year she decided to take a year off from fashion design classes at Mesa Community College near Phoenix.
“The pandemic has really pushed me over the edge,” said Cruz Vazquez, 20.
She was infected with COVID-19 along with her parents. They all recovered and Cruz Vazquez is now working for a local council racing campaign with plans to return to college this year.
In times of economic downturn, more Americans are turning to community college education to learn new professional skills or change careers. But the depth of the downturn in the pandemic, which kept many people homely, appears to have stirred up common trends, education experts said.
Local community colleges are seeing a surge in university broadcasts as the pandemic continues
That worries advocates and policymakers who cite community colleges as important options for low-income Americans. At a Senate hearing earlier this month, President Joe Biden’s election as Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona called for federal funding to hurt the community’s colleges, calling it “the nation’s best-kept secret.”
Even in good economic times, many community college students struggle to stay in school while fulfilling the needs of family support, rent payment, and tuition coverage.
The added challenge of the pandemic was too great for many students, said Ralph Thompson, interim dean of students at Phoenix College.
Enrollment was 10,978 in the fall of 2019, but dropped to 9,446 a year later, a 14% decrease, according to the Maricopa County Community College District, which lists Phoenix College as one of its 10 community colleges.
Thompson hired Irakoze to call fellow students to see how they deal with it and say they “need to feel engaged” during their isolation.
“Students need to hear that someone understands what they’re going through,” Thompson said.
In the United States, community colleges have reported increasing demand from students for help with grocery procurement, prompting them to expand pantries and grocery programs – in some cases, the amount of food distributed has tripled in recent years.
At MassBay Community College near Boston, meal scholarship applications have increased 80% since last year. Dinora Torres – a single mother with four young daughters – said the program helped keep her enrolled.
“If I hadn’t had that, I don’t know if I could have done it,” said Torres, 29, who is hoping to move to four-year university and get a bachelor’s degree in accounting. “It was really hard. I don’t sleep many nights. Some days I had to send my children to my parents so I could work on catching up all day. ”
MassBay suffered a 10% drop in enrollments, but officials have increased aid efforts for students. Torres said the college-arranged donors bought her family Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas presents for their daughters.
“You each gave a present to my daughters. I didn’t even want to celebrate the holidays this year because I didn’t have the money, ”said Torres, holding back tears.
Proponents hope the decline in enrollment will be temporary, and some predict that many students will return to class when campus reopens and jobs return.
However, at least some are expected to abandon higher education, which experts say could lead to lives with lower incomes and financial challenges.
“We are concerned about losing some of them permanently,” said David Podell, president of MassBay. “You may rework later, but every year as you postpone your education, you will earn less in your life and the later the stability will come.”
The shift also shows how the pandemic has widened racial inequalities in education.
The decline in community college enrollments was most pronounced among black students and Native Americans, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. These groups both saw a 13% decrease last year. Enrollment in white and Hispanic community colleges decreased 10% and that in Asia decreased 5%.
About 60% of Phoenix College’s students are racial minorities, but officials said it was too early to determine if minorities were experiencing a disproportionate decline.
Angelica Larraga, who is enrolling in a lawyer program at Phoenix College, said the pandemic has forced her to quit working as a traveling hairdresser because she cannot visit clients’ homes.
Larraga, 35, has sons, ages 7 and 10, and said the past year has been stressful as they struggled with distance learning.
Scholarships pay for Larraga’s classes and books, but the family’s finances were so tight last summer that they got help from the local food bank.
“I’m just trying to get everything working,” said Larraga.