By Victoria Diamond
In today’s pandemic, declining college enrollment in New England has gotten even more extreme. Colleges and universities have been declining in enrollment since 2010 across the nation, according to the National Education Center for Statistics, but with the uncertainty that comes with a global crisis, students and their families are looking more closely into alternative paths rather than going straight into a four-year institution out of high school.
“The New England region, in particular, is very unique, especially Massachusetts because of the number of colleges that we have,” says Alex Russo, the admissions coordinator at Cape Cod Community College, otherwise known as “CCCCs.”
“Boston has 66 colleges alone. You’re not going to find that density of colleges and universities outside of New England. Education is one of the main economic hubs of New England, so students don’t have a lack of colleges to choose from,” says Russo.
Russo also says that the cause of this decline in enrollment could be in a school’s recruitment process as well as the fear of having a hefty amount of debt that so many students are left with after college.
According to Russo, a lot of three-tier (major public universities) liberal arts colleges are struggling financially because they are recruiting students who would traditionally go to a school like UMass or Bridgewater State, but their parents may prefer the appeal of a private four-year school.
“The problem with that,” says to Russo, “is that a lot of times retention is very low with students who aren’t academically strong but maybe can afford to go to these schools. And the other problem is a lot of times these schools don’t have a lot to sustain their admissions process unless they have very selective admissions programs and programs that are unique to that university. For a student to go to a school and spend $60,000 a year for a program that they can go to for, say, Bridgewater State, and pay $11,000 a year doesn’t always make financial sense.”
One of the many who were unenrolled in college during 2017 when enrollment was statistically decreasing, is Mathew Diamond, 24, of Barnstable, Mass. While Diamond did enroll in school in 2015 at CCCCs right after graduating high school, he decided to discontinue after two years and head into the workforce where he spent between 45 and 70 hours a week delivery packages for UPS Inc.
“I really didn’t know what I wanted to do in life. I had no interest in school so, to me, it just seemed like a waste of money,” says Diamond. “I would rather put that time and energy into making money than spending it. So, I left CCCCs with an associate degree in liberal arts, took a year off from education, and went to work.”
Another local from Barnstable, Michael Griffin, 24, who is currently the assistant general manager of a private gym in Hyannis, Mass., also took a similar route as Diamond.
“In 2014 I started courses at New College of Florida,” says Griffin. “I was pursuing computer science and physics. My first semester was a lot of fun. I met a lot of new people and it was exciting to have the freedom to make my own choices. I left in 2015 after one year.”
Like Diamond, Griffin says he just wasn’t “passionate enough toward any one subject to justify the amount of money I was spending to go there.”
According to Russo, “The student loan crisis has really dampened the economy because it’s prevented students from being able to go and get mortgages and start their life early. Individuals are starting their lives later–they’re getting married later, they’re having children later, they’re buying homes later and this is because they’re leaving college with $30,000, $40,000, $50,000, and sometimes $100,000 in debt.”
Griffin and Diamond are two of millions of young people who were told growing up that if you want to be successful you have to go to college and get a degree.
“On paper, I was made for college. I graduated top of my class and was a pretty great student-athlete. Once I realized that some of the successful people, I look up to didn’t go to college, I realized that there’s opportunity out there,” says Griffin. So, he decided to challenge himself by taking a different route. “It might not have been the ‘safest’ decision, but I felt I could make something of myself doing what love—business and fitness.”
“I think this is starting to come into the dialogue more now with families,” says Russo.
Russo has found that parents these days are taking the time to stop and think about whether or not they want their kids to go to school and be burdened with debt. Therefore, many students are beginning to rewire their mindset around what college actually is.
“For my undergrad, I went to Bryant University,” says Russo. “It’s a private four-year school and it looks cool on a sweatshirt. But then again, my wife went to UMass Amherst and, honestly, we got a very similar level of education but if we look at the price tags, it’s dramatically different. People really are starting to ask themselves, ‘is it worth is having a famous name on a sweatshirt if it means having an exorbitant amount of debt?”
After leaving college, Griffin started working in construction for his father to makes ends meet until he took a job at a local gym where he worked his way up to general manager while also training as a bodybuilder. He hasn’t looked back since. At this point in his career, Griffin even has a chance of becoming a part-owner of the gym, proving that hard work and building your experiences over education can still lead you down a path of happiness and success.
Diamond, on the other hand, says that after some time in the workforce, he was ready to take the next step to move forward in life.
“In the Fall of 2018, I decided to quit my job at UPS and go back to school for a four-year degree because I felt I was meant to do much more,” says Diamond. “I really didn’t like my job because I was commuting from Cape Cod to Nantucket every day and it was exhausting,” he says. “Luckily, CCCCs was able to transfer all of my credits to UMass Amherst, which thankfully saved me a lot of money in the long run. I’m still not exactly sure of what I want to do but I figure that having a bachelor’s degree on my resume will look better than an incomplete degree.”
As confirmed by Russo, the biggest concern in college enrollment this year is in finances and the safety of our students.
“I think this hit everybody so fast, especially for parents whose kids are going into their first year of a four-year college, ” says Russo. A lot of universities still don’t really know what they’re doing with this. They’re trying to go with what the governor says while also trying to adapt to their own plans, but things are changing so rapidly that I think parents are just trying to be proactive and do what’s best for their kids.”
Russo says that “Although COVID-19 cases in Mass have slowed down, we are still in the middle of a pandemic if you look at other parts of the country. Parents are concerned that what happened in March, when everything shut down, could happen again in October, which is why they are second-guessing sending their kids across the country for school. People are becoming more cautious and conscious as to the reality of what a college campus actually is.”