GREENSBORO — A new scholarship meant to help new high school graduates pursue degrees at N.C. community colleges in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic did not result in a big boom in overall for-credit enrollment, early data from some local colleges shows.
In fact, the number of students enrolled in for-credit classes fell this semester compared to fall 2020 at three of the four schools contacted for this story.
At Guilford Technical, Davidson-Davie and Rockingham community colleges, headcounts dropped between 2% to 8%. Either the scholarship didn’t attract many students, or gains from the scholarship were overwhelmed by other forces or trends.
Forsyth Technical Community College netted a modest increase of nearly 2%. The college created and marketed a plan that built on the new Longleaf Commitment state scholarship and guaranteed free college for any class of 2021 North Carolina high school graduate enrolled for at least six credit hours.
Devin Purgason, Forsyth Tech’s director of college relations, marketing and communication, said college leaders are pleased with the enrollment gains and the benefits for students.
Still, he had imagined more of a stampede to enroll after that announcement.
“We all would have loved for that number to be larger,” he said. “We took what we had and we went as far as we could.”
Official fall enrollments for all the North Carolina community colleges are due out next month and will provide a clearer picture statewide.
In the meantime, local community college officials shared some ideas about what may have counterbalanced gains from the scholarship and depressed their for-credit enrollment. Stressed college students, rising service industry wages, and shuttered high schools were some of the possibilities they mentioned.
Bryan McCullough, the dean of enrollment services at Davidson-Davie Community College, said many community college students face lots of challenges to attending. For a student also trying to deal with work, health, children, and so forth, the pandemic could become another barrier. From work schedules, to child care, to getting sick or worrying about catching COVID-19, many aspects of life have shifted or become unpredictable during the pandemic.
That can make it stressful and difficult for students to line up everything they need to attend college.
McCullough said even though Davidson-Davie’s recruitment efforts have taken a hit, he thinks they’ve been able to counterbalance that somewhat with retention efforts meant to support these students.
GTCC President Anthony Clarke said changes in the labor market may be making community college look less enticing now to students driving by convenience stores offering $15-an-hour starting wages.
“If I’m a high school graduate, I could almost make $30,000,” he said, referring to annual wages. “So that’s a pretty good salary.”
Each year GTCC conducts an informal survey of Guilford County Schools graduates about their plans for after high school. It was conducted in 2021 again after being on hiatus because of the pandemic in 2020.
This year’s results show that among the 37% of Guilford County Schools graduates who responded to the survey, 21% said they were seeking full-time work after their high school graduation.
That’s way up from the other three years for which the college has data. In those years the percent of students seeking full-time work after graduation was between 4% and 7%.
Clarke suggested the range “potentially represents a significant increase in students choosing the workforce over education in our community.“
Rockingham Community College President Mark Kinlaw was among the college leaders who said remote learning for high school students last school year played a role in depressing community college enrollment.
Community colleges typically recruit students from inside the local schools, but many of those school buildings were closed for much of the last year and virtual recruitment didn’t work as well.
It’s not just soon-to-be graduates that community colleges are trying to recruit. Increasingly, many students are attending community colleges in high school, through programs like Early or Middle College, or College and Career Promise.
Rockingham Community College’s enrollment grew by a whopping 16% in 2019 after expanding its College and Career Promise program to include community college instructors teaching college courses in classrooms inside local high schools.
Those classes couldn’t be held inside the high schools last school year because of the pandemic, interrupting the college’s in-person connection with those students.
“I think we will be able to rebuild over the next couple years, but we are concerned about it,” Kinlaw said.
EdNC reported earlier this year that North Carolina’s community college enrollment fell 11% in fall 2020 compared to fall 2019. The biggest drops came in workforce training and basic skills courses, at declines of 22% and 51%, respectively. The credit-bearing curriculum programs saw a smaller drop of 6% statewide.
“For many, the enrollment decline came as a surprise,” EdNC reported in March. “As late as June 2020, state and community college leaders were predicting an increase in enrollment due to the economic downturn from COVID-19. Historically, community colleges have experienced enrollment increases during recessions.”
In response to the trend, Gov. Roy Cooper announced the Longleaf Commitment grant in the spring, a scholarship just for the high school class of 2021, funded with federal COVID-19 stimulus money.
The scholarship was for state residents with family incomes below roughly $100,000 who enrolled in for-credit courses this fall. Full-time eligible students were guaranteed to receive $700 to $2,800 per year, for a total of two years.
North Carolina community colleges charge up to $1,216 per semester, so the Longleaf Commitment grant, plus federal Pell Grants and state need-based grants, were intended to cover all or nearly all annual tuition and fees for the eligible students.
The governor committed up to $31 million, including $25 million for student aid and $6 million in matching funds to expand student support services toward the effort.
According to the information posted on the community college system website, the scholarship was intended as a critical intervention to help the state meet its college attainment goals while also helping graduating high school students make up for learning they may have missed while classes were virtual during the pandemic.
At GTCC, more than half of the 2021 high school graduates that enrolled this fall received the Longleaf Commitment scholarship, Clarke said. Of the 1,059 students that enrolled, 578 got a scholarship.
“I think it’s a big deal,” he said. “I think it’s a smart use of money.”
However, Clarke said colleges could have used more time to let students know about the opportunity. Cooper announced the scholarship in May, and Clarke said community colleges didn’t receive key information for it until June, a point when many students have already made up their minds.
Clarke said they worked hard to get the word out, but the timing was a bit rushed.
“It’s a little late to influence people,” he said, though he was among the officials that noted students still have the ability to get the scholarship if they sign up for courses that start in October.
Because not all community college courses started at the beginning of the semester, the enrollment figures are still considered preliminary.
“My suspicion is it actually did help our enrollment, because without it I think we would have been in a much worse position,” said Kinlaw, the Rockingham Community College president, in reference to the Longleaf Commitment scholarship.
Among the colleges contacted for this story, none went as far as Forsyth Tech in using the Longleaf Commitment as a stepping stone to guarantee free school. All of the North Carolina class of 2021 graduates at Forsyth Tech are attending for free this year, Purgason said.
To do it, the college used funding from its partnership with Truist Bank, as well as dollars it received from the federal government and from the Forsyth Tech Foundation, Purgason said. What they brought together made it possible to guarantee the free college regardless of family income and also regardless of whether students were undocumented and thus wouldn’t meet North Carolina residency requirements, Purgason said.
“This is the first time that we’ve done this,” Purgason said. “Without the Longleaf Commitment it would have not been possible for us to do this.”
The Longleaf Commitment was a one-time scholarship, specifically for the high school class of 2021, enrolling in college in fall 2021, but both Cooper and U.S. President Joe Biden have floated proposals that would be longer term. Cooper would like to see families making $60,000 a year or less guaranteed at least $6,000 per year to cover the cost of attending any UNC institution or N.C. community college.
Biden looks to guarantee two years of free community college tuition as part of the American Rescue Plan currently being debated in Congress. Either plan would build on the federal aid that already helps many poorer families afford college.
While local colleges wait to see what if any other aid materializes, leaders are enjoying seeing more of their students in person this year who were in virtual courses last year and that leaves them feeling more optimistic.