"Rural campuses experienced steeper decreases in undergraduate enrollment this spring their urban counterparts, public and private institutions alike. The only exception is the community college sector, where severe declined occurred regardless of location (more than 8%)." (Source: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center Spring 2021 Enrollment)

When the economy crashed in 2007, community college enrollments soared, increasing by 33% between 2006 and 2011 according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Two-year programs offered people a refuge from the ravages of the labor market, while giving them an opportunity to acquire new skills, update old ones, and retrain for an uncertain economic future. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought about similar economic woes, but unlike during the Great Recession, community college enrollments are plummeting, decreasing by 9.5% in the last year, according to a study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Although college enrollment decreased across the board by an average of 4.5% across all types of institutions, decreases were most pronounced for rural community colleges (-9.9%) and urban community colleges (-10.3%).

Data also suggests that the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on rural students. Last December, the National College Attainment Network reported that the number of rural students who filled out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), an important indicator of students’ intentions to go to college, dropped by more than 18%, 2 percentage points lower than urban students.

In a report by the Association of Community College Trustees, Rachel Rush-Marlowe outlined several of the reasons rural students are less likely to attend college than their urban and suburban peers. These include financial barriers; household incomes in rural areas were 20% lower than those in non-rural areas prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a 2017 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. This economic disparity has likely grown even greater over the last year, as many small rural businesses have closed and rural unemployment rates exceeded the national average

Rural students are also more likely to be first-generation college students and are less likely to perceive a college degree as a high priority. Furthermore, “attending college often is seen as a barrier to working full time, and those going to school may be seen as selfish, a burden to their families, or shirking real responsibility,” Rush-Marlowe wrote in the report.

These obstacles have always existed for the estimated 600-800 rural community colleges around the country (competing definitions of rural at the federal level make estimating the exact number difficult). But the Covid-19 pandemic has compounded these issues.

One challenge is that rural community colleges’ regular avenues of outreach and recruitment were stymied by the pandemic. “Their pre-pandemic recruitment relied on taking advantage of in-person venues such as local clubs, churches, and high school football games,” Rush-Marlowe wrote. “Without local television or radio stations, and with in-person events cancelled, many rural colleges have been left with few methods to promote their services.”

Perhaps the most important factor is that the pandemic has been especially hard on some of the demographics that make up a significant portion of rural community colleges’ student bodies, particularly high school students enrolled in dual credit programs and students who are raising families.

“The pandemic just hit those who were already stretched really thin, and just stretched them farther,” said Leslie Daugherty in an interview with the Deesmealz. Daugherty works with the Education Design Lab’s BRIDGES Rural project, an initiative dedicated to strengthening rural community colleges.

She explained that many rural community colleges get a high percentage of their enrollment from high school students who participate in dual credit programs. But when high schools moved classes online, it severed that enrollment pathway.

Virtual learning has also been intensely disruptive for students who are the primary caretakers for either their children or their younger siblings. “They’re already trying to go to school, work, and raise a family. And then with the pandemic, and children coming home, now they have to be a teacher or a facilitator,” Daugherty said. “Student parents are already juggling so much, and at some point something has to drop.”

The challenges of virtual learning are also exacerbated by deficient rural broadband access. Roy Silver, a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College (SKCTC) and board member of the Rural Community College Alliance (RCCA) said in an interview that of the 1,900 students enrolled at SKCTC, over 300 don’t have reliable internet access, preventing them from participating in online learning. Even when students and professors do have access, the signal may not be strong enough to sustain multiple video calls, which is an obstacle when multiple members of the household are trying to learn, teach, or work from home.

Job loss and layoffs during the pandemic have also deeply affected students’ financial calculus. For students who were working either part or full-time to pay for their courses, pausing their education became the only option. “When it comes to conversations about putting food on the table or paying for your college course, it’s not an easy decision but it’s the only decision you have,” Daugherty said.

The decline in rural community college enrollment is a concerning trend for rural higher education as a whole. Rural community colleges “have a relative monopoly on higher education” in rural areas, Silver said. This is because the workforce development training and transferrable education (skills that can be used in a variety of roles and occupations) provided by community colleges, and the “lower cost, greater intimacy, and proximity” that they offer are especially valuable for rural students, he said.

Silver emphasized that community colleges are major regional employers. The schools are also known for providing community support, including food and clothing banks, childcare, and mental and physical health services, which can be especially difficult to access in rural areas.

Furthermore, community college presidents, faculty, and staff are often deeply involved in local government as well as economic development initiatives, including organizations like the Chamber of Commerce, regional hospitals and clinics, city councils, school boards, and even little league teams.

“On the educational front we provide intimate and student centered transfer vocational education,” Silver said. “Additionally, to employ economic terms to what we do, our communities benefit from our social and human capital services.”

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