Flexible programs, technical training help suburban colleges recover from pandemic slump
After a year of online learning, Asharia Harris needed help dealing with the anxiety of returning to in-person classes this fall at the College of Lake County in Grayslake.
"It was a little nerve-racking," said Harris, 19, of Wadsworth, a sophomore and first-generation college student studying psychology.
She said the transition was made easier by "supportive" college counselors and faculty members, scholarships and grants for tuition, food and housing, and flexible modes of learning this year.
It helped Harris stay in school, where she is taking three classes online and one in person.
Suburban community colleges are trying a variety of approaches to recover from an 18-month COVID-19 slump. Student enrollment is up among select demographic groups and programs, though overall most of the colleges are not back to pre-pandemic levels.
Some four-year colleges are faring better.
Northern Illinois University in DeKalb saw new freshman enrollment climb by nearly 12% over last fall -- the largest year-over-year percentage increase in the freshman class in more than two decades. Southern Illinois University in Carbondale has its largest class of new freshmen in five years -- an increase of 4.5%. Benedictine University in Lisle is seeing a 10% rise in freshman enrollment this year.
Yet, community colleges are making some gains. Several factors are in play, including colleges continuing to offer flexible in-person, online and hybrid learning options, increased financial support, and a shift in labor markets driving demand in certain fields.
College of Lake County officials had been expecting a 12% drop in enrollment, but the college gained 2% overall and 12% in new students, largely in adult education and dual credit courses. The college is seeing a 37% increase in returning students -- who had a gap of a semester or more -- over the fall of 2020, and significant growth in its Latino (7%), Black (14%), and 21-24 age group populations (8%).
A majority of students, 37%, are taking Zoom-based live classes, 25% are learning at their own pace online, 23% are attending in person, and 15% are in hybrid mode.
Officials began seeing gains in the spring and summer of 2020 after adopting new student support and retention initiatives. Students now are assigned personal advisers who stay with them throughout their college careers.
"We've redesigned the way we recruit, onboard and advise students," said Erin Fowles, CLC dean of enrollment services. "We moved to a case management model ... (to) really offer these holistic support services to all students."
New students are required to take a two-credit college success course that helps them learn practical strategies, such as note-taking, time management, accessing resources, financial literacy, and self advocacy. Officials also changed the policy of not allowing students to enroll in classes if they haven't yet made arrangements to pay overdue tuition balances.
"In light of the pandemic, we decided to do away with that," said Fowles, adding the college used federal COVID-19 relief funds to help hundreds of students stay in school. "We used those emergency funds to pay off past-due balances for students who were enrolled during the pandemic."
Educators aren't sure whether the enrollment shift is a one-year bump due to pent-up demand that will dissipate in future years. The long-term impact of the pandemic on college enrollment remains to be seen, but officials say fall trends are promising.
A shortage of skilled workers is driving the increase in enrollment at Elgin Community College's career and technical education programs.
Employers are clamoring for apprenticeships, leading the college to add sections of industrial maintenance and manufacturing courses this fall and next spring.
"As a result of what happened with the pandemic many (employers) are moving to automation," said Cathy Taylor, ECC dean of sustainability, business and career technologies.
ECC's overall student enrollment is up 2% from last fall. Meanwhile, some CTE programs are seeing double-digit enrollment increases, such as automotive (19%), machine tool technology (38%), and welding (63%).
Taylor said the college is strengthening its partnership with local employers -- Swiss Automation in Barrington, Dynacast in Elgin and Smithfield Foods in St. Charles -- who are poised for students to complete their skills training at ECC.
Trends also show a rebound of Latino students, whose enrollment declined by more than 1,700 from 2019 to 2020 but increased by 17% this fall. Similarly, enrollment of older adults, which dropped significantly last fall, has seen a huge spike -- that includes people seeking to complete basic education, such as high school equivalency (35%), and earning college degrees (326%). Students seeking English proficiency more than doubled.
At College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, last fall's 12% enrollment drop was the biggest dip officials had seen in several years. This fall's enrollment is down 0.8% from 2020 numbers.
Select student populations are showing enrollment gains -- up about 7% among Latinos and nearly 3% among Blacks. Adult students and enrollment in CTE and ESL programs also have increased.
"We're trending in a very good direction," COD President Brian Caputo said.
Latino students particularly were hard hit during the pandemic and many quit college to help out family members who lost their jobs or were struggling financially, Caputo said.
To accommodate students' circumstances, COD is offering a mixture of classes this fall. Forty-nine percent of students have opted for in-person courses, while 51% are learning through remote options.
Caputo has appointed a task force to study the future of learning at COD, which might look different from a traditional college environment.
At Harper College in Palatine, enrollment dipped 1% overall and 5% in full-time equivalent students. But the college is seeing an increase of 12% in new adult students and 20% in returning students.
Though students are taking fewer credit hours this fall, what's more encouraging is they are coming back, said Bob Parzy, associate provost for enrollment services.
Adults seeking to upgrade their skills and switch careers caused the nearly 8% enrollment jump in certificate programs and 45% rise in noncredit programs.
Meanwhile, Harper has provided tuition relief to more than 700 students and awarded scholarships to more than 2,200 students to keep them in school.
"This pandemic hangover is definitely real," Parzy said. "The financial impact on students and families ... they are still coming out of it. The job market is so incredibly lucrative right now. We're competing for sure against (it)."
Harper also is growing its apprenticeship programs to meet employers' demand.
Parzy said a lot of people only now are coming out of the fog of the pandemic.
"We're hopeful that people will be more optimistic about going back to school," he said. "Especially when you see the adults coming back, that's a very good sign for colleges."