The COVID-19 pandemic has flipped the script for community colleges. Usually during lean economic times, community colleges can depend on people seeking job training and new careers to enroll.
But for Galveston County’s community colleges, and those across the state, that hasn’t been true during the pandemic. Enrollment is down, and college leaders are looking for ways to reverse the trend.
“Community college enrollment is typically inversely related to the health of the economy,” said Myles Shelton, the president of Galveston College. “When people aren’t working, that’s when our enrollment goes up.”
That hasn’t been true during COVID, despite periods of high unemployment and what many have assumed was a vast rethinking of the future among people with much time to reflect.
Enrollment at Galveston County’s two community colleges has decreased for two consecutive years, according to data published by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
At the College of the Mainland in Texas City, this fall’s enrollment was 4,140 students. In 2020, enrollment was 4,335 students and in 2019 it was 4,687 students.
At Galveston College, enrollment in 2019 was 2,306 students. In 2020, it was 2,060 students. In 2021, it fell to 2,008 students.
The colleges are hardly alone in the drop in enrollment numbers.
Of the 53 community colleges in Texas, 50 reported being below their 2019 enrollments this year. Thirty-one of the colleges have had enrollment drops of more than 10 percent in the past two years and, for the first time since the 1990s, enrollment at four-year state universities surpassed overall community college enrollment.
The pandemic is most to blame for the drop, said Helen Brewer, the vice president for Student Services at the College of the Mainland.
It’s not only that students were getting sick or feared too much for their health to attend classes, she said. The groups most served by community colleges, such as low-wage workers and people of color, also have been more at risk of losing their jobs or having family members who are sick.
All of those factors resulted in people being less able to afford or make time for classes, Brewer said.
“The impact of COVID is going to be long-lasting,” Brewer said. “We’ve seen a lot of students who have not made that comeback financially in terms of being able to return to school.”
Restoring enrollment is important to community colleges’ bottom line and to their ability to offer classes and programs.
Colleges are funded biannually by the Texas Legislature, which allocates money using an enrollment-based formula. Fewer students could potentially mean less money.
But the formula isn’t simple.
Galveston College saw a funding increase from the legislature’s most recent regular session because it maintained a good number of full-time students, Shelton said. Full-time students clock more classroom hours, which is the standard used in funding calculations.
At the College of the Mainland, officials are hoping to use federal money to boost enrollment during the spring semester, Brewer said. The college has started advertising a dozen study areas — from EMT courses, to web design, to massage therapy — as “back to work” programs that can be completed in less than a year.
The idea is that people looking for a way out of low-wage and sometimes occasional work will seek paths to steady, higher-paying full-time jobs, Brewer said.
The college is offering those programs tuition-free, using money from federal aid designated specifically for community college students, Brewer said.
In Galveston, among other things, the college is using federal money to invest in COVID safety technology — such as air filters and touchless fixtures — to make people feel safer on campus, Shelton said.
“If our campuses are healthy and safe, then there’s a comfort level for students to come back to campus,” Shelton said.
Both colleges also have used federal funds to help cover college fees and expenses, including books and computers.
It’s not clear yet how successful the ideas will be. There are still 40 days left to enroll in spring courses.
So far, the College of the Mainland has received about 450 inquiries about the programs, Brewer said. It’s her job to turn those people into students, she said.
“We want to try and make sure we help those people who have expressed an interest get back to work as soon as possible,” Brewer said.