Revitalizing Enrollment: Supporting Equity and Educational Justice in Community College
By Sujung Kim
During the pandemic, community colleges have experienced a sizable decrease in student enrollment. Vulnerable student populations, including low-income, African American, Latinx, Asian Americans, and Indigenous students, as well as other groups of minority students, have been most seriously affected by the difficult conditions of living and entering or continuing their postsecondary education. Making efforts to increase the enrollment of community college students is both directly and indirectly related to reducing the equity gap and addressing democratic educational justice, considering the fact that students of color and low-income students are much more likely to lapse in enrollment or to quit their postsecondary education (Mangan, August 16, 2022).
In the interest of helping community colleges to establish and/or revisit their institutional policies, curricula, and/or support services for vulnerable student populations, this essay aims to examine the existing institutional policies and practices that have boosted enrollment at community colleges. I explore the following subtopics:
- Supporting adults who quit their studies without any degrees or certificates,
- Making funds available for short-term certificates,
- Establishing food pantries at community colleges as a central resource.
Supporting Adults Who Quit Their Studies Without any Degrees or Certificates
The report titled “Some College, No Credential Student Outcomes: Annual Progress Report – Academic Year 2020/21” reveals that in 2020, 39 million students quit their postsecondary education without a credential (National Student Clearinghouse, 2022). The drop-out number indicates that one in five people over 18 in the U.S. quit their postsecondary educational programs (National Student Clearinghouse, 2022; cited in Mangan, August 16, 2022). They also state that “six out of ten who enrolled in 2019-2020 either continued to the following year or got a credential within a year of returning” (National Student Clearinghouse, 2022, cited in Mangan, August 16, 2022). The National Student Clearinghouse report also provides further information on SCNC students:
944,200 SCNC students (aged 18-64) re-enrolled and 60,400 students (aged 18-64) earned their first postsecondary credential in AY2020/21. About 62 percent of re-enrollees chose a different institution from their last enrollment. Re-enrolling in a community college after last attending a community college was the most common pathway for SCNC re-enrollees (363,400 students, 38.5%).
As indicated in the report, community colleges are one of the most crucial institutions where adult students who had dropped out of their studies chose to resume their education. In her article entitled “Finishing What They Started: Adults with Some Credits but no Degree Hold the Key to Enrollment and Equity,” Katherine Mangan highlights that the health of higher education institutions are reliant on their support for the “stopped-out students” (Also see National Student Clearinghouse, 2022). Below are two case studies which demonstrate how universities have been providing support for lapsed students.
- Interdisciplinary & Continuing Studies (Morgan State University)
To help stopped-out students make successful transitions, Nicholas Vaught, a student-success administrator at Morgan State University, emphasizes that it is crucial to “not [view] them as failures” (Mangan, August 16, 2022). In particular, Morgan State University established the College of Interdisciplinary & Continuing Studies (https://www.morgan.edu/cics), which offers an applied liberal-studies major (Mangan, August 16, 2022). Furthermore, Morgan State University accepts credits from prior learning, and integrates the job skills that students develop at their workplaces into their degree programs. Morgan State University also allows students who take online classes across the country pay in-state tuition.
- “Open University” (California State University at Dominguez Hills)
As Sabrina K. Sanders indicates, it is important for community colleges to provide support services such as child care, financial aid, and tutoring (Mangan, August 16, 2022). It is also important to create environments in which students who consider returning to college and students who are already re-enrolled in classes have a strong sense of belonging. The California State University at Dominguez Hills created their “Open University” specifically for working adults who are not officially admitted to the university for various reasons. The Open University creates flexibility for students by allowing them to submit a portfolio or demonstrate in other ways the skills and training that they have acquired on the job. They work with the department faculty members and translate their experience into course credit (Mangan, August 16, 2022). Along with Morgan State University, California State University at Dominguez Hills also created systems through which advisors guide returning students from their applications to graduation. They also have established regular check-ins with students as part of their innovative programs for the re-enrollees.
Creating Short-term Certificate Programs
Considering the difficulties that community college students face, such as struggling to make ends meet while parenting and studying, community colleges in Massachusetts started to prioritize designing and providing short-term certificate programs (Hatch, Myskow, & Trivedi, August 15, 2022). For example, Quinsigamond Community College established a free “fast-track skills academy” (https://info.qcc.edu/fast-track) by earning $2.7 million in Massachusetts workforce-development grants. In this fast-track certificate program, students are trained in careers in high-demand areas, such as medical assistance and back-end software development (Hatch, Myskow, & Trivedi, August 15, 2022).
Food Pantries as a Central Resource
Quinsigamond Community College expands its role by serving not only its students, but also local communities where its students and their family members are residing. Luis G. Pedraja, the president of Quinsigamond Community College, states that “We feel like we’ve gone from just being an educational facility to being more of a center for serving the community in general through social services, as well as education” (Hatch, Myskow, & Trivedi, August 15, 2022). Given the reasons for which community college students tend to drop out, such as responsibilities that include paying rent, parenting, and/or taking care of elders, this expanded service is very significant. The college itself shares the responsibilities that community college students are burdened with.
By serving more broadly the local communities, students’ families, and/or potential new students and returning students, Quinsigamond Community College utilizes their food pantry as a checking-in point for their students and the local residents. The community college’s food pantry connects students and residents to supporting offices and programs both in and outside of the community college as well as providing food for them (Hatch, Myskow, & Trivedi, August 15, 2022).
Terry Becchio, the dean of students at Quinsigamond Community College, points out “It wasn’t unusual for our students to be struggling prior to Covid… [yet] during Covid, it was much more challenging for students to get their basic needs met” (Hatch, Myskow, & Trivedi, August 15, 2022). As Becchio underlines, considering the most urgent needs for students and their family members, a food pantry is one of the most critical services for community colleges.
However, Quinsigamond Community College employed its food pantry “as a central resource for other services and referrals the college can provide” (Hatch, Myskow, & Trivedi, August 15, 2022). The staff members of the food pantry connect students and other community members to a law office where they get help related to housing or immigrantion law, or a program that provides free classes on how to manage financial issues (Hatch, Myskow, & Trivedi, August 15, 2022).
Many findings from existing literature demonstrate how community college students often have difficulties with navigating institutional and/or other community organizational support services. With limited guidance and/or information, they often find it difficult to figure out whom to contact and where to go to address their needs. Under these conditions, the food pantry that students and local residents can easily access is a way of lowering barriers. This way, students and other community members can not only get information about support services, but also can have contact with institutional staff who are dedicated to guiding them to relevant services.
As discussed above, reversing the decrease of enrollment at community colleges is directly related to addressing educational equity and justice. During the pandemic, low-wage workers who often do not have health insurance are risking their and their family members’ health to serve other community members, and more broadly, people at grocery stores, restaurants, nursing homes, hospitals, other public institutions, and other social arenas. They were suddenly spotlighted and praised as essential workers. It was an unusual time period where the whole society was collectively aware of the significance of their work, expressed gratitude to these workers, and recognized them as significant members of our society.
Given the large percentage of lapsed enrollment for community college students, who mostly belong to this low-wage worker group, during the pandemic, and the large re-enrollment numbers at community colleges, schools must implement effective policies and various forms of support services. This is one of the ways to acknowledge their invaluable contributions and sacrifices to society, which are often overlooked and seriously undervalued in financial terms. I hope that our collective gratitude toward our crucial companions leads us to critical self-reflection on the exploitative and inhumane policies and practices which our society has continuously been employing. Furthermore, the most responsible course of action is to implement policies and practices that ensure these community college drop-outs, returnees, and potential students continue their postsecondary education and successfully finish their studies.
California State University at Dominguez Hills. Open University.
Hatch, B., Myskow, W., & Trived, I. (2022, August 15). Stopping the enrollment slide: How
three colleges are trying to arrest their yearslong declines. Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/stopping-the-slide
National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. (2022, May). Some college, no credential
student outcomes: Annual progress report – academic year 2020/21. https://nscresearchcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/SCNCReportMay2022.pdf
Mangan, K. (2022, August 16). Finishing what they started: Adults
with some credits but no degree hold the key to enrollment and equity. Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/finishing-what-they-started
Morgan State University. College of Interdisciplinary & Continuing Studies.
Quinsigamond Community College. Fast-track skills academy.