Tennessee’s community colleges were expecting an increase in enrollment as people struggled to find work this fall. So it came as a surprise when high education leaders saw a 11.5% decrease in students compared to last year.
Economic downturns, historically, have led to bigger enrollment at community colleges. These numbers are usually driven by adult students.
According to a 2018 U.S. Census report, two-year college enrollment grew by 33% nationwide from 2006 to 2011 — the period leading up to, during and after the Great Recession.
“A lot of people expected to see that at community colleges this fall, but we’re not seeing that this time around,” says Amy Moreland, director of policy at the Tennessee Board of Regents, which oversees 40 of the state’s two-year colleges and trade schools.
Fall enrollment trends:
- Adult enrollment: down 13%
- Enrollment of new, full-time freshmen of all ages: down 19%
- Tennessee Reconnect student enrollment: down 15%
- Tennessee Promise students who graduated during 2019-20: down 6%
- Overall dual-enrollment: down 9%
The financial woes caused by the pandemic brought on a domino effect of issues that weren’t quite pulled to the forefront during past economic recessions.
Like technology barriers, Moreland says, and the lack of childcare, which was exacerbated by some school districts not reopening buildings in August. These factors, she says, likely caused some adult students to pause their own education to help with their children’s.
“We’re seeing that in those places where K-12 schools were primarily remote or virtual, those are also some of the places where we saw the steepest declines in adult enrollment,” says Moreland.
In Davidson County, Metro Nashville Public Schools opened virtually in August and didn’t start phasing in students for in-person classes until mid-October. The district paused its process in October due to rising COVID cases.
In Memphis, where many parents attend Southwest Tennessee Community College, public schools won’t begin reopening buildings until at least January.
“Tennessee community colleges serve the most students who are … balancing school alongside work and childcare,” says Moreland. “The majority of our students, especially adult students, are working full or part time while they’re enrolled.”
Based on a 2019 student engagement survey taken at the state’s community colleges in 2019, TBR found that nearly 80% percent of students worked while enrolled. About half of surveyed students said they were responsible for the care of dependents.
And nearly a third of those students told TBR that caring for dependents made them likely to leave college.
Moreland says colleges are still examining enrollment trends to determine what exactly happened to students this fall. But they believe technology challenges, K-12 closures, unreliable childcare, and unstable economic conditions are all contributing factors to the overall decline in students.
Juggling college in a single-parent household
“If I were able to take a break from school this semester, I most certainly would have,” says Annisha Thomas, a student at Nashville State Community College. “I would not have gone back.”
Thomas is a single mom and works at a local Waffle House. She wanted to withdraw from school this semester, but says consistent enrollment is required for her to keep the scholarship she gets by participating in Tennessee Reconnect. It’s a program that helps adults complete their degree at a community college.
“Because of the pandemic, I was able to drop down to one class and not lose my scholarship,” says Thomas. “Typically, you have to take at least two classes.”
Thomas says she’s been juggling paying the bills, putting food on the table for her two children, and focusing on her own schooling.
Up until a few weeks ago, she was also basically her daughter’s homeschool teacher. That was before Metro Schools allowed elementary students to return to school buildings.
“My job starts at 7 o’clock [in the morning]. My kid had to go to a babysitter. I’d get off at 2 o’clock,” says Thomas. “Then I’d go pick up my child and me and my 7-year-old had to do school at 3:30 in the afternoon.”
Thomas says, overall, the transition caused by the pandemic has been rough, especially when it came to taking her own online classes while helping her daughter get through virtual schooling.
During the pandemic, these are barriers that have been fairly common among a number of adult college students.
“I had students who wanted to withdraw from college this semester because of the uncertainty,” says Sandra Timberlake, who guides hundreds of Tennessee Reconnect students through the program. “There were also students who decided they didn’t want to go back.”