When Lawrence resident Iseline Mendoza needed help meeting her housing costs this summer, she turned to what might seem an unlikely place for help: her school, Northern Essex Community College.
Mendoza, who had been living with her mother during the pandemic, was able to move with her 2-year-old son to her own apartment with the help of funds provided by the college to cover the initial rental costs.
Like the other 14 community colleges in Massachusetts, Northern Essex does not offer campus housing for students.
“That really helped me to be able to focus on my studies,” she said, adding that having her own apartment has also enabled her to better fulfill her duties as the college’s new Student Council president. “It really encouraged me even more to want to be at Northern Essex.”
In part to stem a long-term enrollment decline exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, community colleges across the state are providing expanded financial and other support to help attract and retain students.
The added assistance was enabled by an infusion of federal emergency funds the colleges have received during the pandemic to help students with their educational costs, and to meet their own operating expenses.
Those funds — along with the partial return of in-person classes — are raising hopes among some officials and students that life is starting to return to normal at the community colleges.
“We’ve been really excited to have some increased activity on campus after 20 months of COVID-19,” said Phil Sisson, president of Middlesex Community College, which has campuses in Bedford and Lowell.
“Things are going pretty smoothly. I think the college is really staying focused on reaching out to students, making sure all their needs are met,” said Amara Bangura, a student at Massasoit Community College, which has locations in Brockton, Canton, and Middleborough.
Alieza Inam, another student at Massasoit, is also happy she is getting at least some on-campus experience this semester. The Sharon resident, who is pursuing an associate’s degree in biology, goes to Massasoit’s Brockton campus once a week for a lab session.
”I’m excited to be there in person,” said Inam, who enrolled at Massasoit in late 2020 and until now had no in-person classes. “I’m enjoying being actually able to meet people. Being online, it’s hard to make friends. And it feels like I am actually getting to know the college.”
Like other higher educational institutions in New England, community colleges have seen their student numbers drop in recent years due in part to stagnant population numbers, according to Nate Mackinnon, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Community Colleges. That decline grew steeper last year when colleges had to shift to nearly all-virtual instruction.
“This fall we are in a better situation because we are able to offer a number of classes in person,” said Mackinnon, who estimated that among the 15 community colleges in the state, the proportion of courses meeting on campus ranges from 20 percent to 50 percent.
He added that the expanded assistance colleges are offering students is also having an impact. “Without the federal resources, enrollments would be much worse than they are right now.”
As one other step to promote a return to normalcy on campuses, the presidents of the community colleges recently announced that students, faculty, and staff at all the colleges must be fully vaccinated by January.
“It’s paramount to maintaining a safe and healthy learning environment at our colleges,” Mackinnon said.
Community colleges offer a range of options, from two-year associates’ degrees that some students stretch over a longer period of time to certificate programs lasting a year or less to noncredit workforce training.
Ray DiPasquale, president of Massasoit Community College, said community colleges have long been a vital part of the higher education system, due in part to their affordability. Tuition and mandatory fees at community colleges last year averaged $6,778, compared with $11,149 at state universities, and $15,699 for University of Massachusetts schools.
But they are now playing “just as important a role in helping students in any way we can to continue their education despite the challenges of the pandemic,” he said.
Mendoza said Northern Essex also paid for an exam she took that earned her needed credits to complete her degree at the end of this semester — saving her money — and provided her free tutoring and counseling,
“They’ve really given me a lot of opportunities,” said the former amateur boxer, whose career goal is to work for an organization that helps people released from prison to reenter society.
“Historically, community colleges have always been prepared to answer the call for our communities whenever there is a need,” said Jennifer V. Mezquita, vice president of student affairs at Northern Essex, which has campuses in Haverhill and Lawrence.
She said the colleges did that again during the pandemic by pivoting to online learning without sacrificing the close interactions with faculty members students have long enjoyed. She said the enhanced assistance to students is also part of that response.
Mezquita said Northern Essex is providing students money to meet costs — from housing to transportation and child care — that might otherwise prevent them from attending college, drawing from federal funds it received for that purpose.
She said the college also allotted part of the federal money it received for its own operating expenses to erase debt some of its students owed for tuition and fees. Other help has included assisting students in purchasing laptops and subsidizing costs of taking exams to earn credits.
Northern Essex also accelerated the adoption of a “case management” system to provide prospective and enrolled students the personal attention they need, Mezquita said, noting that the pandemic has “made salient” the value of that one-on-one assistance.
Mezquita credits the enhanced student support with a small uptick in Northern Essex’s enrollment this year — from 4,700 students to about 4,800.
Middlesex Community College this summer also used federal money to wipe out student debt to the institution, an initiative that saved about 2,800 students on average $1,500 in outstanding tuition and fees incurred from the start of the pandemic.
“We wanted to make sure we were doing as much as possible to keep students on the path to getting an education,” Sisson said.
He said the college also has provided students emergency funds for housing and other costs, and offered them “robust” virtual academic advising, counseling, and other services. Expanded in-person activity is also important to many students, he said.
Sisson said Middlesex Community College still projects a slight decline in enrollment but that the debt relief initiative, in particular, will help prevent it from being even steeper. “A number of students have expressed to us that they are extremely grateful to not have that debt hanging over their heads.”
Daniella Dankwa, a Lowell resident and Ghana native who is pursuing an associate’s degree in nursing at Middlesex, said she has benefited from being able to pick up free food from a college pantry, and from funds she has received to help with her expenses.
“They provide a lot of support services for students. It’s very helpful,” said Dankwa, formerly Middlesex’s student trustee. “They reach out to make sure you are on the right track, and provide tutoring help.”
Massasoit Community College provided tuition and fee debt relief to about 1,500 returning students this fall, loaned laptops to 292 students, and offered funding for other expenses. Staff also has stepped up efforts to help students with their academic needs and assist prospective students with the admissions process.
“We’ve tried to become a valuable resource to students in every way possible,” DiPasquale said.
Massasoit’s enrollment is projected to fall by about 7 percent this year, continuing the downward trend of recent years, according to DiPasquale. But with the supportive efforts the college is mounting, he is hopeful enrollment will start to recover.
Bangura, who is majoring in media communications, received funding from the college that he primarily used to access online textbooks, along with virtual tutoring support that helped him complete a course.
“I’m extremely happy with the way the college meets the needs of students,” said the Sierra Leone native, who as a “presidential student ambassador” is himself, an informational resource about Massasoit for current and prospective students.
“Our message to students is that we are open for business,” DePasquale said, “and that economics should not be a barrier. Our goal is to help you achieve your education, to achieve your dreams.”
John Laidler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.