May 5, 2021
By Elyssa Cherney – CHICAGO TRIBUNE
Enrollment declines at Illinois colleges and universities continue to outpace other states, with community colleges shouldering the brunt of the losses, as the coronavirus pandemic looms over another school year, according to new national and state data.
The state’s community colleges saw enrollment plunge by 13% this spring compared with spring 2020, when the pandemic and schoolwide lockdowns were just beginning, according to research from the National Student Clearinghouse. Total postsecondary enrollment in Illinois dropped by 5.2% and undergraduate enrollment slid by 7.5%. All three figures are worse than the national average.
“There were very significant declines in the fall that have largely continued in the spring,” said Lisa Castillo Richmond, managing director of the Partnership for College Completion, a Chicago-based nonprofit. Castillo Richmond noted vaccinations weren’t widely underway and financial uncertainty abounded when students were signing up for spring classes.
Enrollment falls at community colleges
During the coronavirus pandemic, enrollment at Illinois community colleges fell dramatically. Chicago colleges are represented in dark blue and the suburban colleges are in light blue.
Though colleges are hoping to welcome more students back for in-person classes next fall, most relied on online learning or hybrid formats this year. Capacity limits, health concerns and economic challenges interrupted progress for thousands of students who didn’t return to campuses. Some worry students who paused their studies — particularly students of color or from underprivileged backgrounds — might never come back.
At Elgin Community College, spring enrollment is down nearly 15%, said Gregory Robinson, the dean of students who also serves as associate vice president of student services and development.
While declines were recorded across all student demographic groups, the college’s adult education programs, which offer GED completion and English as a second language courses, took the biggest hit — a 30% drop, Robinson said. Those classes predominantly serve Hispanic students, he said.
Many students at Elgin had never taken online courses and needed time to adjust, Robinson said. The community college will offer more in-person classes this fall but will also continue to provide hybrid and online courses, particularly for lecture-based disciplines.
“We have tried to set up a schedule to accommodate that,” said Annamarie Schopen, assistant vice president of teaching, learning and student development. “We have many, many hybrid sections offered this fall and then we have a nice balance of synchronous and asynchronous. Our fully face-to-face is still a little bit lower.”
Class size limits last year meant fewer students could sign up to learn in person, which affected enrollment, Schopen said. Elgin saw fall 2020 enrollment dip by 16%, Schopen said.
Spring enrollment is down 14% at Joliet Junior College this year, according to Robert Morris, dean of enrollment management. Figures collected by the Illinois Community College Board on the 10th day of classes show greater losses but don’t account for students continuing to register for late-start programs, Morris said.
Morris said that many students chose not to enroll because of financial or technological limitations, though the school started a laptop loaner program and offered financial aid through federal relief funding, he said.
“Many students that typically go to school here are in professions that were most impacted by the pandemic, whether that be retail or restaurants or working at Amazon,” Morris said.
He’s optimistic that more students will return for the fall but doesn’t expect a complete rebound. Students will only come back if they see the professional benefit of earning a college degree, he said.
“I think the pandemic has really caused people for the first time to calculate the value of going to college,” he said. “Everyone is taking a much more closer look at their own situation.”
The situation for community colleges remains precarious nationwide. In prior recessions, community colleges saw steady or increased enrollment from adults who wanted to increase their skills during a shaky job market, but the pandemic has exacerbated economic challenges, Castillo Richmond said.
“The community college population is a much more financially vulnerable population,” she said. “Community colleges serve far higher percentages of low-income students, adult students and students who are caregivers.”
According to the National Student Clearinghouse, community college enrollment nationwide stooped even lower this spring than in the fall. While fall 2020 enrollment was down 9.5% compared with the same period the previous year, the numbers for this spring dropped 11.3%.
Undergraduate enrollment as a whole also took its deepest dive since the beginning of the pandemic, down 5.9%.
A different data set from the Illinois Community College Board shows spring enrollment dropped by 14.2%, or 39,715 students. The report, published in March, notes that more than 65,000 students graduated from the state’s 48 community colleges in 2020 despite the enrollment dip, the sixth highest annual graduation rate.
Only two community colleges saw enrollment increases this spring — McHenry County College and Malcolm X College, one of the City Colleges of Chicago. The report did not include demographic information, but ICCB said it would analyze that information in the summer to more fully understand the pandemic’s toll.
The spring data mirrors what ICCB saw in the fall, when enrollment was also down 14%. Then, enrollment for Black and Latino students declined about 19% compared with a 12% decrease for white students.
The Illinois Board of Higher Education, which oversees four-year universities, hasn’t yet released spring enrollment data.