The COVID-19 pandemic and rising living costs have made it even harder for community college students across Massachusetts to stay in school.
Between the fall of 2019 and the end of the recent fall semester, Massachusetts community colleges collectively lost nearly 13,000 students working toward degrees. Higher education leaders and advocates fear that those students will not return, a situation that could reverberate across the region’s economy as more people struggle to earn living wages without college degrees.
Community college students are often parents who work while they attend school but inflation has made that balancing act harder, school officials say.
“Our biggest competition is not other colleges but work,” said David Podell, president of MassBay Community College. “When we look at students who apply and don’t come, and [we] ask what happened to them, they go to work because they had to put food on table and pay rent and child care. School comes after those factors.”
College enrollment in New England has been falling for years, largely due to demographic changes driven by lower birth rates during the 2008 financial crisis. Community college enrollment of students pursuing degrees fell 37 percent between fall 2012 and fall 2022 in Massachusetts, a decline that has left just 63,449 students enrolled, according to data from the state’s Department of Higher Education.
The largest enrollment declines came between the fall semesters of 2019 and 2020, when the pandemic prompted more than 8,600 students to stop their studies to work or care for loved ones.
While the losses have slowed since 2020, college leaders and advocates remain concerned that the trend will continue. That could particularly hurt the state’s most disadvantaged and underrepresented communities, which have traditionally used community colleges as an entryway to higher education, said Bahar Akman Imboden, managing director of the Hildreth Institute, a research center focused on higher education.
“Community college is such a useful piece of that educational puzzle for a lot of us,” said Daniel Desrochers, director of marketing at Greenfield Community College and an alumni. “It’s more cost-effective and can lead to success. A lot of our students are first-generation and community colleges are smaller and more nimble so we can work with students more directly. We are the only option for many people, so it’s really important that we are a viable option.”
Contributing to individual’s decisions to enter the workforce full time rather than pursuing a degree is the rising price tag of higher education. In Massachusetts, that figure is higher than many other parts of the country. The cost of attending community college in Massachusetts is 47 percent above the national average, Imboden said.
Jayden Hosmer stepped away from his studies at Greenfield Community College during the pandemic after several family members fell ill and his uncle died. He was hoping to fast-track an associate’s degree while still in high school but those plans changed.
“I couldn’t really focus with the pandemic going on,” said Hosmer, 18. “There was a lot of tragic stuff and I couldn’t really handle all of that all at once.”
Hosmer spent this past summer contemplating whether he should enter the workforce or return to college. It wasn’t an easy decision for Hosmer, who said his parents didn’t pursue education beyond GED diplomas and many of his friends went into the workforce straight from high school. But after going over the options with the Department of Children and Families and family members, Hosmer, who is in the foster care system, decided to reenroll this fall at Greenfield to pursue a career as a social worker.
“I feel more prepared and well-adjusted,” Hosmer said. “I want to do social work, like with the Department of Children and Families, because a lot of my life they were involved in, and they’re helping me get through college now with some scholarships.”
Community college leaders are ramping up efforts to bring students back to their campuses, especially those with course credit but no degree. Students who enroll in nine credits or more for the spring semester at North Shore Community College by Dec. 30, for example, receive $500 credited to their student account, said Jennifer Mezquita, the college’s provost.
Students have responded positively, Mezquita said. “It’s all about behavior — get students to register sooner rather than later.”
Colleges across the state also are increasing resources for low-income students who are struggling to meet their basic needs with food pantries and financial assistance.
“The impacts of inflation have just been really severe on the student populations we serve,” said James Vander Hooven, president of Mount Wachusett Community College. “When it’s becoming difficult to achieve food security, housing security, the price of heating oil, the price of gasoline — all of these things are really hitting our students severely.”
For students who stepped away from their studies to enter the workforce or care for family members, Mezquita said, North Shore Community College has been hosting registration events on weekends to make it easy for students to reenroll.
Vanessa Cooper, 31, recently reenrolled at North Shore after stopping her studies twice — once to care for her children and once to overcome domestic violence.
“I can’t let what happened to me define who I am,” Cooper said. “I still want to have an education. I love school. I completed this semester and I just finished enrolling for the next.”
Cooper, who also works full time at a community health center, said she is now planning to pursue a career in human services and aspires to earn an associate, bachelor’s, and master’s degrees.
Cape Cod Community College, for its part, is restarting visits to area high schools after the pandemic stopped those efforts. The visits enable school officials to get in front of students and raise awareness of the college’s program offerings. Community colleges typically have small marketing budgets so reaching out to students directly is an important enrollment tactic, said Christine McCarey, the college’s dean of enrollment and wellness.
“The goal is to get students excited about college,” McCarey said. “We want to support educational goals but basic needs come first.”
The loss of community college students also affects enrollment at four-year public colleges that rely on transfer students and employers who depend on two-year programs that train future workers. Salem State University, for example, accepted 37 percent fewer transfer students in 2021 compared to 2017, according to data provided by the university.
“In some ways, we are the foundations of public education,” said Pam Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College. “From our graduates come bachelors, masters, professionals, teachers — all the things we say we need. We educate half of all undergrads in the Commonwealth. We want to keep this college as viable as possible in the community because that is how communities grow.”