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Enrollment usually rises at community colleges during an economic downturn. That’s not the case during coronavirus.

Fall enrollment among Colorado community colleges is down 22% at a time those schools have become more reliant on tuition

Overall enrollment is down for summer and fall terms across Colorado community colleges, including at Pikes Peak Community College in Colorado Springs. The decline bucks a historical trend. Typically community college enrollments jump during economic downturns. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)
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Times of economic distress typically give rise to bustling community college campuses, where students of all backgrounds turn to enhance their skills or build new ones in pursuit of a new career altogether.

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Accessible to all, community colleges offer a safe harbor for students — both traditional and nontraditional — trying to navigate toward an in-demand job.

“People are out of work. They know they need to reskill,” Colorado Community College System Chancellor Joe Garcia said. “They know they don’t really have other options, and so they figure now is a good time to go back to school and learn something new when the economy rebounds.”

But as the coronavirus has sent the economy whirling, Colorado community colleges aren’t signing up more students — and not for a lack of trying. Across the Colorado Community College System’s 13 schools, fall enrollment between in-person and online classes is down 22% from this time last year, Garcia said. Currently, 18,525 students have enrolled in classes for the fall. 

Garcia warns that that kind of dip translates into a severe financial hit for schools. Small rural colleges, like Lamar Community College and Otero Junior College, are in a particularly delicate financial position. At those schools, a difference of 10 students can dramatically impact overall revenues.

For summer courses, total enrollment is down about 8.5%. However, the community college system is seeing an uptick in enrollment for online courses. Enrollment is up 20% for summer courses and 13% for fall courses, compared to this time last year.

Enrollment at Pikes Peak Community College is currently down 20% for summer courses and down 35% for fall courses. Like other community colleges in Colorado, the college is ramping up its recruiting and marketing efforts. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)

Garcia and community college leaders are optimistic that overall enrollment will bounce back at least a bit, projecting enrollment for fall will be down 10% to 20%. Online enrollments could help colleges move closer to being flat by the time classes start and will also help the system offset the loss in revenue from traditional classes, he said. 

Still, a smaller drop in enrollment doesn’t bode well for the bottom line, particularly as community colleges have come to lean more on tuition dollars and as they face significant budget cuts from the state.

The anticipated drop in the state budget combined with the decrease in tuition dollars could create a $100 million hole, Garcia said.

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“That poses an existential threat to at least some of our smaller colleges,” he said.

He noted that it’s not clear if federal funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act will be able to help colleges offset dollars lost from revenue or if those funds will just be able to help colleges cover increased expenses directly related to the coronavirus. 

A pervasive sense of uncertainty and fear is behind the decline in enrollment, Garcia said. People wondering when their jobs will come back — or if they’ll come back at all  — are reluctant to commit to a semester-long course.

“People are just taking a wait-and-see approach,” Garcia said.

People are also spooked by the coronavirus, concerned for their health, particularly in communal settings, said Angie Paccione, executive director of the Colorado Department of Higher Education.

“It’s a health care crisis that brought on the recession, and the health care crisis has a tremendous impact on any kind of organization, anything that requires people to congregate,” Paccione said. “And so the fear of this virus is what I think is impacting enrollment.”

She said institutions of higher education must take all of the necessary mitigation precautions so that they can assure students and their families that it is safe to return.

“Until students feel confident that they can be safe on campus, I honestly don’t expect them to return,” Paccione said.

How do you fill a $100 million gap?

Colorado’s 13 community colleges, which serve about 137,000 students each year across 40 sites, have increasingly become dependent on tuition, similar to four-year institutions, Garcia said. 

Community colleges used to receive more money from the state than they collected in tuition, he said, but those scales have tipped. Community colleges in Colorado take in about $275 million in tuition, compared with $190 million in state funding shared between the colleges and the system office, where Garcia works.

A 25% cut in state funding — which Garcia said is a possibility for community colleges when looking at the overall cuts needing to be made from the discretionary budget — would mean those colleges would lose out on $47.5 million. On top of that, a 20% drop in enrollment, which Garcia said isn’t “out of the realm of possibility at all, unfortunately,” would deprive colleges of $52 million in tuition.

He noted that colleges are being advised to anticipate state budget cuts and save in response. They’re also being directed to eliminate any nonessential travel and explore their reserves should they need to dip into those funds. At a minimum, colleges must have 11% of their budget in reserves, Garcia said, and some have well above that as they save for a large-scale project.

Colorado’s community colleges are facing enrollment challenges and financial challenges “on a scale we’ve not seen before,” Garcia said. He added that it’s not the first time colleges have faced challenges and emphasized how important they are to their local communities and to the overall state workforce.

“We’ll get through this,” he said.

Front Range Community College’s Larimer County campus in Fort Collins on March 6, 2020. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)

The economic consequences could be particularly dire for rural colleges, which have much tighter margins. They feel any dip in enrollment. “It is dramatic,” Garcia said.

Those colleges have already been facing an additional challenge as rural communities across the country have experienced declining populations and aging populations, Garcia said.

But those schools remain critically important for their communities as they provide jobs and produce talent, acting as “economic engines” in their communities regardless of their size, he said.

CCCS will reallocate money from its big colleges to its small colleges if necessary, Garcia noted.

But he’s not yet certain how the system would make up a $100 million funding loss. Community colleges have a little more flexibility than four-year institutions, with fewer of their faculty being full-time and tenured. If enrollments are down in certain classes, colleges won’t offer them and faculty assigned to them won’t teach. That impacts rural colleges more where a higher percentage of faculty are full time.

Yet, if classrooms continue to be limited to 10 students next year — as they were under Gov. Jared Polis’ stay-at-home order and still are under his safer-at-home order — classes that would otherwise have more students will have to be broken up into two classes, doubling personnel and adding instructional costs, Garcia said.

Cutting classes, staff is a real possibility

Total enrollment for summer courses at Pikes Peak Community College, which has three primary campuses and the Center for Healthcare Education and Simulation in Colorado Springs, is down 20% from last year, but President Lance Bolton hopes enrollment will tick upward before classes start in a few weeks.

Fall enrollment figures are more dismal, down a total of 35% from last year. It’s early, Bolton said, though that percentage still strikes him as large.

The drop in enrollment is exclusive to on-campus classes. The school’s enrollment isn’t down at all for online courses, Bolton said.

Pueblo Community College, with campuses in Pueblo, Cañon City, Mancos, Durango and Bayfield, is down about 14% for summer enrollment and down about 40% for fall courses, President Patty Erjavec said. However, she anticipates the college’s enrollment will be off only about 10% in the fall after more students sign up for programs like nursing and allied health.

“This crisis has taken everyone by surprise and it’s impacted everyone in a different way, but community college students come to us with a lot of adversity and this crisis has just expanded upon that,” she said.

Pueblo Community College is down about 14% for summer enrollment and down about 40% for fall courses. The college is instituting a hiring freeze in an effort to help its budget. (Pueblo Community College/Steve Bigley, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Erjavec knows that tough decisions might be on the horizon. Pueblo Community College is instituting a hiring freeze, which she said may be enough to balance the budget. She doesn’t yet know if layoffs will come next. However, the college is also analyzing the number of classes and sections it offers with the possibility of cutting some of its specialty classes and ending programs that have not traditionally had high enrollment, such as its fire science academy. That could lead to staff reduction, she said.

“Without students, we don’t have the revenue and without the revenue we need to look for ways to cut and be able to sustain ourselves throughout this time,” Erjavec said.

Pikes Peak Community College is also implementing a hiring freeze, opting not to fill at least 65 vacant positions, Bolton said. That will spare the college from using furloughs, layoffs or pay cuts to balance the budget.

He projects his campuses are up against a $4.5 million funding gap, part of which they’ll make up for through staff vacancies. The college will also redirect personnel, reduce work that is not essential and carry forward an employee travel ban.

It’s a matter of “trying to save money in every nook and cranny of the institution,” Bolton said. He added that the school will likely have to tap into its reserves to stay whole.

Both Pikes Peak Community College and Pueblo Community College have ramped up recruiting and marketing efforts as a proactive measure to boost enrollment. Marketing and outreach have become major priorities at community colleges across the state, Garcia said. The system is prepared to use some of its reserves to market the fact that its colleges are open, affordable and an accessible option.

“We’re going to do everything we can to turn around that decline,” Garcia said.

Part of those awareness efforts will be geared toward students setting their sights on a four-year degree as they can earn up to two years of credits at a community college and then transfer those to a four-year institution, he said.

If the economy remains stalled at the beginning of the fall semester, community colleges could experience a lot of last-minute enrollments, Garcia said, and enrollments could also spike among residential university-bound students who think they’ll only be able to take online classes and don’t see the value of paying tuition. They could instead opt for those same online courses at a community college, where Garcia said tuition is generally 40% of the average of in-state university tuition. 

Will students feel safe on campuses?

Come fall, all Colorado community colleges intend to return to a variety of class formats, offering instruction that is face to face, online and a hybrid, Garcia said. But there is room for adjustments and colleges are considering a range of scenarios, including the possibility of scaling back an in-person class to one day a week and having students complete the remainder of the course remotely to reduce the number of students, faculty and staff who are physically on campus at one time.

“We want to provide instructional activity, but we don’t want to endanger anyone’s health and safety,” Garcia said. He added that colleges will follow whatever guidelines Gov. Jared Polis has in place in the fall. 

Taylor Morrone, a PIkes Peak sophomore who plans to go into nursing, is eager for in-person classes to start back up in the fall. Morrone stopped attending school about two weeks after spring break, once her classes had fully transitioned to online. The move to remote learning wasn’t easy for a visual learner like herself. She decided to push pause on her classes as her grades in classes like anatomy and physiology 2 slipped. 

Those classes have high standards, Morrone said, and taking them virtually added to the challenge.

Morrone focused instead on her job as a certified nursing assistant at a Colorado Springs nursing home.

She’s opted not to take any summer courses, hesitant about pursuing more classes while so much remains unknown about the coronavirus. It’s not the virus, itself, that scares Morrone — at least for her own health. She worries about enrolling in courses only to have the virus resurge over the summer as governments relax restrictions. That could then force her to pivot back to online learning.

She’s more concerned about losing money and is frustrated with her school for not being clear on whether she would be reimbursed for her spring semester courses. She doesn’t believe online courses — that lack in-class resources — are a worthwhile investment.

“I’m not getting the same bang for my buck,” Morrone said.

Patricia Lucero, a Pikes Peak Community College student studying psychology, organizes shelves during a shift working as a book seller in a work-study position at the campus bookstore. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)

Some of her peers across the community college system also struggled with the transition to remote learning but managed to adjust in time. Patricia Lucero, a Pikes Peak student studying psychology, was stressed as she and her teachers tried to adapt to an online format but settled into the new mode of learning after the first week. She had a lot of support from her teachers.

“They go above and beyond to make sure we still get the education that we want and what we need without having the fear of failing pretty much,” she said.

Lucero plans to take two courses online over the summer that she had originally planned to take so that she could try out online courses. By fall, she would welcome the chance to return to in-person courses. As places start to reopen, she wants to ease back into classroom learning and find a sense of normalcy again.

She doesn’t fear contracting the coronavirus on campus; she believes the school will implement safety and distancing protocols.

Neither does Jessica Carroll, a Pueblo Community College student majoring in biology and hoping to start studying respiratory therapy in the fall. 

It’s not that she’s entirely fearless. But she’s intent on helping people and knows that, to do that, she still needs to go to school.

And, as a mother of a 4-year-old and with a plan to get married next year, she’ll be smart about how she handles being back on campus — washing her hands and staying away from others.

“It’s not different than being smart about everything in everyday life,” Carroll said. “It doesn’t mean we should ignore it. It doesn’t mean we should pretend it’s not there. But we can make it work.”


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