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As pandemic upends campus life, students turn to community college

Kaleigh Jenness said attending Middlesex Community College provides her the flexible schedule she needs to continue her schooling while also earning money. She works as a manager at Abbott’s Frozen Custard, in Lexington.
Kaleigh Jenness said attending Middlesex Community College provides her the flexible schedule she needs to continue her schooling while also earning money. She works as a manager at Abbott’s Frozen Custard, in Lexington.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Kaleigh Jenness was preparing to enroll at the University of New Hampshire this fall, excited by the chance to begin a four-year campus experience. But when COVID-19 struck, she suddenly reversed course, opting to attend Middlesex Community College.

“With the pandemic and the amount of money I was going to have to pay at UNH, at the last minute I decided to go to Middlesex,” said Jenness, who graduated last spring from Lexington High School. “One day I was going to UNH — I had a roommate and everything — and then I realized it was not the best plan for me money-wise.”

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At a time when the pandemic is upending normal campus life and wreaking havoc on the economy, Jenness is one of many freshman students in the region who were bound for four-year colleges but have chosen instead to attend community college, at least for now.

“The environment both with the economy and with the pandemic has influenced the decisions of many parents and students,” said James C. Mabry, president of Middlesex Community College, which has campuses in Bedford and Lowell.

“With the pandemic, many students and parents see the advantage of staying close to home and being able to take high-quality online courses at a reasonable cost,” he added.

Mabry, who is also chair of the Massachusetts Community Colleges Council of Presidents, said it is difficult to quantify how many students are making the switch from four-year to two-year colleges. But he said anecdotal evidence suggests a good number are doing so.

Tuition and mandatory fees for full-time students at community colleges last year averaged $6,578. Average charges, not including room and board, were $10,895 at state universities, and $15,629 for University of Massachusetts campuses. US News and World Report said average tuition and fees at its nationally ranked private colleges across the country was $41,426.

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All the state’s community colleges are offering their classes primarily online this fall, according to Mabry.

Nate Bryant, North Shore Community College’s interim president, said students choose four-year colleges in part because they want to experience campus life. “But there is not going to be much of a campus life this year. Rather than spend that money and not get that benefit, it makes more sense to stay close to home.

“And if you want to save money, community college is the best option by far,” Bryant added, noting that many community colleges have established agreements with four-year institutions that make transfer of credits relatively easy.

Gena Glickman, president of Massasoit Community College — which has campuses in Brockton, Canton, and Middleborough — believes it is parents who are spurring many students bound for four-year schools to consider community colleges.

“I think it’s the parents who say, look, ‘My job is uncertain, we are all working from home. We don’t want you going off and getting sick and you are going to get a comparable quality experience taking courses online at Massasoit as at a four-year school at much less cost,’” she said.

Jenness, who plans to transfer to a four-year college after a year or two at Middlesex, had looked forward to a campus experience.

But she said attending Middlesex provides her the flexible schedule she needs to continue her schooling while also earning money: Jenness works as a manager at Abbott’s Frozen Custard in Lexington, and as a lifeguard at Lifetime Fitness in Burlington. Except for a chemistry lab, all of her class sessions will be virtual.

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“I had been nervous that I would be drowning in student loans when I finished college,” said Jenness, who is self-funding her education. She said by saving money now, she will be on sounder financial footing later to pursue her goal of becoming a cardiologist.

Hannah Creamer,who graduated from Medford High School last spring, planned to attend the University of Tampa to study marketing, but has decided to defer admission and instead attend North Shore Community College full time this fall.

“I just felt like with everything in Florida being so bad right now with COVID-19 I wasn’t going to get the same college experience I would have. I couldn’t really see myself being happy down there,” she said.

Some community colleges have been reaching out to students who had planned to attend four-year colleges and others through social media and other platforms, including by citing the relative affordability of community colleges and the ease of transferring credits.

“We are certainly putting the word out that we are welcoming folks who for one reason or another don’t feel they want to go ahead with the plans they thought they might have for the fall,” said Linda Brantley, North Shore’s director of public relations and new media.

Glickman said that because they can often easily transfer credits later, students accepted at four-year colleges “won’t lose any headway” if they take courses at community colleges.

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Community colleges nationwide have seen their enrollment drop on average about 5 percent the last several years due to such factors as a decline in the population of college-aged students and the stronger economy that preceded the pandemic, according to Mabry.

Even with the addition of students otherwise headed to four-year colleges, officials expect a similar decline on most campuses this fall, largely because some of the traditional low-income students community colleges usually attract may be unable to enroll for financial reasons.

“These students are facing tremendous economic uncertainty — Massachusetts has the highest unemployment rate in the country,” Mabry said. “Many of our students work in service industries that are now closed and have had a very hard time financially.”

Glickman expects Massasoit to see as much as a 10 percent decline in enrollment “because people’s lives are uncertain” due to the economy and the pandemic.

Meanwhile, at least one student has adjusted to a blended approach, taking courses at both a four-year and a two-year college.

Lily O’Neill is enrolling at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, but because she will be at home taking all her classes online, the 2020 Amesbury High School graduate decided to also take courses at North Shore Community College to earn extra credits.

O’Neill said many students choose four-year colleges for the campus experience and being away from home, “but once I started to realize the pandemic was taking that away, it forced me to think creatively. If all colleges are going to be online, it opens up more opportunities to look at alternatives that can save you time and money in the future.”

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Living at home, “there will be fewer distractions than in a normal college environment, so I’ll be able to work harder,” she said, observing that accumulating credits would allow her to “enjoy life a bit more later” and potentially to graduate early.

“After talking with my parents,” she said, “I just felt and they agreed I would be more comfortable taking courses online from North Shore until everything settles down, and we can see what happens in the spring.”

John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.