Why Students are Choosing Community College During COVID-19

Students today are finding it difficult to justify risking their money for an expensive, four-year college program while in the midst of a global pandemic.

According to the United States Census Bureau, when the economy is suffering or in recession, community college enrollment rates are likely to rise.

“We tend to run countercyclical,” says Dr. Martha M. Parham, senior vice president of public relations for the American Association of Community Colleges. Parham has over 20 years of experience in the community college world. Prior to her current position, she was the District Director of Public Affairs, Marketing, and Government Relations and Executive Director of the Foundation at the Coast Community College District in Orange County, CA.

Martha M. Parham 
has over 2o years of experience with Community Colleges and says it isn’t uncommon for community college enrollment to rise in the midst of a recession Photo credit: American Association of Community Colleges

Parham says, “We can look at the Recession of 2008 as the latest indicator that shows us that community colleges were inundated with students.”

Parham happened to be working at one of the district’s colleges at the time in Orange County where there were several community colleges. “We had three in our district and there were three other districts,” Parham says. “We had students that were taking one a class at multiple districts just to get their classes in because we were so incredibly impacted with the influx of students.”

Addressing the Current Rise in Community College Enrollment
Today, with the coronavirus pandemic still at large, more and more students and their families across the nation are finding it to be financially responsible, as well as more healthfully responsible, to explore higher education options that are cheap and close to home. This means that community colleges must prepare for the potential rise in enrollment.

Alex Russo, the admissions coordinator at Cape Cod Community College, often referred to as CCCC’s, says that the college is undeniably seeing an increase in interest in community college from students and their families.

“We’re seeing an increase in applications this year,” Russo says. “More students are applying, and we’ve actually seen a big push in just the last couple of weeks as four-year schools are starting to release their COVID-19 plans for the Fall.”

“For example,” says Russo, “I spoke to a parent whose child was supposed to go to Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass. The family said were sent a 54-page document explaining the school’s whole outline of policies during COVID-19, which was hugely discouraging to the student’s hope for that “college experience.”

Although more and more people are seeing community colleges as a viable choice, Parham says that what makes this particularly challenging is that, usually during a recession or economic downfalls, community colleges are also challenged by budgets with state allocations. “As the money stops coming in,” says Parham, “the more students come in.”

She says, “We’re teaching more and more students and we are already the least funded sector of higher education. Then, we have budget challenges on top of that. So right now, it’s the perfect storm of all perfect storms. People are out of work, we’re in the middle of a global crisis, and the economy is being challenged so nobody can be in a classroom. It is going to be a particularly challenging year for states that fund community colleges.”

According to Parham, community colleges are 42% of the nation’s undergraduates. “If you think about that in terms of all colleges across the United States,” says Parham “that’s a huge portion of students. They do not receive 42% of the funding. Personally, I do believe they should get 42% of the funding. We serve the majority of underrepresented students in the U.S and we do it for less.”

Current Community College Students

Adilina Rotella is a local business owner and current student at Cape Cod Community College

Plenty of students today are recognizing the benefits that community colleges have to offer. Adilina Rotella has been studying at CCCC’s since the Fall of 2017. A small local business owner on Cape Cod and current student, she has enjoyed taking her time and pacing herself while earning her undergraduate degree.

“I initially chose to go to community college because I was very lost after high school,” she said. “It seemed that everyone knew exactly what they wanted to do, like be a nurse or a firefighter, but I genuinely had no clue. So, I really didn’t want to waste my money at some college that I would probably end up transferring from anyway once I figured out what major I wanted my degree in.”

Rotella’s original goal was to go to a community college and then transfer to a private institution, but with all of the new school restrictions due to the coronavirus, she has decided to continue taking all the necessary classes that she needs for half the price and without risking her health and wellbeing.

Reducing Reliance on Student Loans
According to Russo, the current student loan crisis has unquestionably discouraged the economy because it’s prevented our young people from being able to start their lives early on. Students today are finding it extremely difficult to go and get mortgages or pay rent and therefore, they’re putting certain events off until later in life such as getting married, having children, and/or buying a home because they’re leaving college with $30,000 40,000 50,000, and sometimes 100,000 in student loan debt.

In a survey conducted by the College Savings Foundation, the data shows the different ways in which students are exploring options for paying for college to minimize the amount of debt they will leave school with.


Chart made by Victoria Diamond with Inforgram, Source: College Savings Foundation

Adapting to Community College Life Today

Community Colleges, like CCCC’s and most other higher ed schools, have switched to an all online platform as a result of the Coronavirus outbreak. For a few of the lucky ones who were already taking online courses like Rotella, not much has had to change for them.

“When the college switched to an all online platform it actually didn’t affect me at all since all my classes were already online. It definitely made things easier for students in my situation when COVID-19 hit,” says Rotella.

Although students like Rotella may not have felt the effects of the switch, community colleges certainly have.

“In extraordinary circumstances such as this,” says Parham, “we’re having to pay more money for the technology to be able to go to a fully online, remote learning format. In many cases, community colleges are providing internet or hot spots so students can go sit in their cars and get some work done if they need to. Some schools are providing personal WIFI or hot spots so students can work in their homes, laptops, and even food insecurities.”

Adding up the Benefits of Community College Today
For high school students who may have their hearts set on an expensive four-year school, Parham says to keep the following in mind:

“Number 1,” says Parham, “it’s a smart choice. If you’re going to be learning remotely anyway, why not do it for a third of the price? You’ll be saving a lot of money.”

Not to mention, Parham says that in many cases, professors who teach at community colleges often also teach at their local university. So, in a lot of circumstances, students have the very same professors that teach at the ‘brand name’ schools.”

Lastly, Parham says that community colleges are not just about transfers or two-associate degrees.

“Community colleges provide reskilling and retraining, certificates, and classes for people looking to get into the workforce as fast as possible, which is critical right now during this pandemic,” she says.

For Rotella, she says that “Community College has benefitted me because it has given me time to slow down and figure out my direction in life while still obtaining a college degree. It’s taught me how to transition from a teenager in a ‘high school’ world to the ‘adult world’ in a positive way and has allowed me the time to figure out what makes me happy and what doesn’t.”