In 2016, NACAC’s Transfer Advisory Committee encouraged the association to take a leading role in combating the stigma associated with community college attendance and transfer. According to national data, over 1 million first-time students change institutions within six years—resulting in an overall transfer rate of 38 percent.
In an already ever-evolving higher education landscape, the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated and amplified change. Overnight, the switch was made to virtual instruction. Campus housing emptied as students returned home. College administrators learned to supervise a staff working remotely. And through it all came increased worries about how best to sustain students’ interest in higher education.
How does community college and transfer enrollment fit in this crisis? And what are the projections like for fall 2020 and beyond?
According to How the Financial Crisis and Great Recession Affected Higher Education, our last economic crisis—the Great Recession—lasted from 2007 to 2009 and was marked by an increase in two-year college enrollment. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the total fall enrollment for degree-granting postsecondary institutions swelled dramatically between 2005 and 2016.
At that time, the unemployment rate rose sharply from 5 to 10 percent, the equivalent of 15 million jobless Americans. People between jobs took the opportunity to enroll part-time. The spike in enrollment was also triggered by major policy changes that increased the maximum federal Pell Grant. Student borrowing power was also higher than usual (which pushed students into higher debt).
It’s still too early in the current crisis to tell how high the unemployment rate will climb, but it has already risen past that of the Great Depression, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Additionally, 44 percent of two-year college students said they lost their jobs due to the pandemic; 28 percent have seen their work hours reduced; and 11 percent are homeless due to the coronavirus crisis, according to The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice.
As of May 2020, FAFSA completion rates were down according to the National College Attainment Network (NCAN), with 3.2 percent fewer applications submitted compared to last year. There are many factors that may be curbing students’ plans to enroll in college. The extraordinary number of college and university closures has had a significant impact on how students can receive their financial aid; the increase in unemployment has families leaning on all parties to contribute to the household income; many low-income students lack internet access; and so on.
While this doesn’t bode well for higher education at large, FAFSA completion figures should not yet be discouraging to community colleges because FAFSA completions for these schools tend to be done last minute. Add to that the uncertainty of how school will work in the fall, and it’s easy to infer that students may delay their decisions more than usual.
As for nontraditional students, time will tell whether, as in the last recession, gaps in employment will make way for college enrollment, or if the fear of the unknown due to COVID-19 will stifle student confidence in a college investment.
As some experts in the field are observing, it’s too early to determine an accurate enrollment projection, including transfer patterns. The Great Recession only gives us a portion of the projection. We unfortunately are faced with new factors—closed institutions, whether students will be physically on campus, government leadership, and the feeling of anxiety.
Given current personal and economic uncertainty, four-year institutions must make transfer students an integral part of their enrollment strategy. The pandemic is forcing the investigation of new models. It will be important to communicate offers of financial assistance and be transparent about how an investment in college will pay off.
The good news is that, as students avoid expenses, so can colleges, thanks to technology and the prolific ways it allows communication. Prioritizing communications and engagement throughout the entire admission pipeline is more important than ever as students have been craving human connection since the beginning of the pandemic.
—Tiziana G. Marchante