Enrollment at US community colleges plummets amid pandemic

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Dinora Torres, a MassBay Community College student, poses with her four daughters on the front porch of their home, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021, in Milford, Mass. From front left are daughters Davina, Alana and Hope, with Faith in Dinora's arms. At the college, applications for meal assistance scholarships have increased 80% since last year. Among the recipients is Torres, who said the program helped keep her enrolled. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

PHOENIX – Peniella Irakoze is cold calling a list of 1,001 fellow students who didn’t return to Phoenix College this semester, checking on how they’re managing during the coronavirus pandemic.

The calls have become a regular part of her job at a community college like others across the U.S. that have experienced significant enrollment declines as students face challenges with finances, family life and virtual learning.

“I didn’t know that so many people were struggling,” said Irakoze, 20, who studies medical laboratory science and works part-time for the college. “So many students aren’t coming back.”

Nationwide, enrollment at community colleges — which offer two-year degrees and vocational training and often attract older students looking to learn new skills — dropped 10% from fall 2019 to fall 2020, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.

They were hit the hardest amid all colleges and four-year universities experienced only slight declines, beating many predictions that the outcome would be worse.

While it was no surprise that fewer freshmen enrolled at four-year and community colleges, delaying studies until campuses fully reopen, the pandemic took a much heavier toll on older adult students who frequently choose the community college route. Many lost jobs or have no time for their own schooling as they supervise their children’s online classes.

“The majority of them are working, many of them in industries that have been decimated by the pandemic,” said Martha Parham, a senior vice president for the American Association of Community Colleges. “Trying to navigate that and take classes is a very daunting challenge at this time.”

Depression and anxiety also disrupted the academic careers of community college students, including Stephanie Cruz Vazquez.