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Minnesota’s community colleges show sharper than usual enrollment declines

“There was a time when community colleges had an inverse relationship with the economy. The economy’s up, enrollments down; economy’s down, enrollments up. Well, we’re in a new norm,” said Kay Frances-Garland of Saint Paul College.

At Minneapolis College enrollment was down 11.5 percent this spring.
At Minneapolis College enrollment was down 11.5 percent this spring.
Minneapolis Community and Technical College

Community college enrollment in Minnesota has faced a steady decline over the past decade, but new data provided by Minnesota State Colleges and Universities reveal that enrollment declined further during the pandemic — with a decrease in enrollment by 5 percent last fall as opposed to the average fall-to-fall decrease of 1.7 percent. 

This decline is aligned with a national decline in community college enrollment, according to the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit organization that releases biannual data on higher education. The report found that community college enrollment was down 11.3 percent in the spring, almost double that of the decline in undergraduate enrollment at 5.9 percent. 

In a press release from the organization, Executive Director Doug Shapiro said, “The continuing slide in community college enrollments is of great concern. In a sign of potentially long-lasting impact on the level of skills and credentials in the workforce, there is still no age group showing increases at community colleges, even after a full year of pandemic and related unemployment.”

An outdated correlation

In the past, community college enrollment increased during times of economic uncertainty, but Kay Frances-Garland, the dean of strategic enrollment at Saint Paul College, says this correlation no longer exists. 

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“There was a time when community colleges had an inverse relationship with the economy. The economy’s up, enrollments down; economy’s down, enrollments up. Well, we’re in a new norm. That’s not necessarily the case,” she said.

Doug Anderson, the director of communications and media at Minnesota State, says the decline in enrollment is driven by a number of factors. 

“The pandemic is one of them, but it’s also being driven by economic and demographic issues that have been impacting our colleges and universities for a period of several years,” he said.

Although Anderson pointed to a decline in graduating seniors and the prior economic recovery as reasons for a decrease in enrollment, he also emphasized that “the decrease of the past year has been greater than what we’ve seen in prior years.”

Data provided to MinnPost from various community colleges across the state confirm the trend. Student enrollment was down 13 percent at Saint Paul College compared to being down 6 percent in enrollment the previous year. At Minneapolis College enrollment was down 11.5 percent this spring.

We absolutely believe the pandemic caused a drop in enrollment this year; we just couldn’t say how much of that 13% decrease was specifically because of it,” said Ryan Mayer, the executive director of marketing and communications at Saint Paul College.

Student enrollment was down 13 percent at Saint Paul College compared to being down 6 percent in enrollment the previous year.
Saint Paul College
Student enrollment was down 13 percent at Saint Paul College compared to being down 6 percent in enrollment the previous year.

Some students impacted harder than others

Approximately 50 percent of the state’s community college students are enrolled in colleges in the metro area, of which a large population of the student body includes students of color and students from low-income backgrounds.

I do believe that underserved populations have been impacted harder than other populations,” said Anderson.

Heidi Aldes, the dean of enrollment management at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, also known as Minneapolis College, says that the pandemic has put added financial pressure on students.

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“Some students can’t afford to not work right now,” said Aldes, “and it’s hard to go to school when you have to work. So I think financial hardship is the most significant impact.

The student body at Minneapolis College is particularly vulnerable to economic fallout of the pandemic, with 72 percent of students eligible for financial aid. 

The students that we serve include a 10 percent homeless population and students that struggle with homelessness, students struggling with housing insecurity, and an even greater population struggle with food insecurity,” said Aldes. “So it’s hard to be successful in the classroom when you’re trying to survive in life.”

Distant learning a deterrent

Aldes says Minneapolis College focused on offering students financial alleviation, but for some students the switch to online classes was another deterrent. 

“Zoom fatigue is a real thing, and certainly our high school students experienced it,” said Aldes, who noted that the largest decrease in enrollment at the college was amongst new students. “Recent graduates from high school went from completely face-to-face engaged learning to all of a sudden pivoting to online learning without folks having the time to really build an online learning skill set. And that is overwhelming and difficult.”

Frances-Garland said students had similar sentiments at St. Paul College, where the administration conducted a phone campaign to check in on students who expressed discomfort with online classes. So the online shift from in-person to Zoom made them uncomfortable and we encouraged them to hang on, but we did have a number of students withdraw,” she said. “The numbers wouldn’t say that it was a vast increase of withdrawal, but we know that probably some students would have withdrawn anyway.” 

Data provided by Saint Paul College identified that the largest decline in student enrollment was among Black and Asian students, where enrollment was down 13 and 19 percent respectively, compared to being down 11 percent among white students; these three are the largest demographic groups at St. Paul College, making up 73 percent of the student body.

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A different picture at RCTC

While most colleges across the state saw a decline, enrollment at Rochester Community and Technical College remained flat and increased among Black and Latinx students. 

Jefferey Boyd
Jefferey Boyd
We are up in students of color by about 2 percent in the last year,” said Jefferey Boyd, Ed.D., the president of RCTC. 

Nationally, data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported that enrollment was down by 30 percent  among first-year students who identified as either Black, Hispanic or Native American.

Boyd believes that remaining partially open through the pandemic was a factor in the rise in enrollment among Black and Latinx students.

We kind of remained open in that we provided laptops and we provided computer labs. And what I noticed is that most of the students coming in for those services were students of color,” said Boyd. “I think a lot of folks just assume that everyone could just access online education and register everything online. But the most vulnerable students really don’t. They didn’t adjust to that as quickly as probably others.

While most colleges across the state saw a decline, enrollment at Rochester Community and Technical College remained flat and increased among Black and Latinx students.
Rochester Community and Technical College
While most colleges across the state saw a decline, enrollment at Rochester Community and Technical College remained flat and increased among Black and Latinx students.
As for the rest of the population, Boyd credits RCTC’s proximity to Mayo Clinic and remaining partially open to maintaining enrollment in the midst of a national decline.

“I think by having our doors open and earlier than most campuses, I think even in Minnesota, we never really closed as far as that goes, so I think that helped us,” Boyd said. 

Retention initiatives

As most schools look to open in the fall, Doug Anderson at Minnesota State says a number of retention initiatives are taking place to help students remain enrolled, including emergency grants, food delivery and mental health services. 

But as schools return to a post-pandemic normal, one thing is certain: The old rules don’t apply. 

With the economic downturn caused by the pandemic, you would have expected to see enrollment go up, but it didn’t,” said Boyd.  “And it’s continued its decline.”