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A COVID-19 enrollment boom for Md. community colleges?

Montgomery College students take a break between classes in the atrium of the Charlene R. Nunley Student Services Center. Maryland community colleges are expecting an enrollment boom as students and families dissatisfied with paying four-year university costs for a mostly online program during the pandemic eye their options. (Courtesy of Montgomery Community College)

Montgomery College students take a break between classes in the atrium of the Charlene R. Nunley Student Services Center. Maryland community colleges are expecting an enrollment boom as students and families dissatisfied with paying four-year university costs for a mostly online program during the pandemic eye their options. (Courtesy of Montgomery College)

As four-year universities grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, Maryland community colleges see an opportunity to extend their increased summer enrollment rates into the fall semester.

Community colleges, with their lower fees, are taking advantage of families’ and students’ reluctance to pay standard four-year tuition rates for a menu of largely online classes. And community colleges are providing further financial incentives while adding health protections for new and returning students.

Like other schools in Maryland, the Community College of Baltimore County, which has about 60,000 students, has seen an increase in summer enrollment, said President Sandra Kurtinitis. She said she expects an increase in fall semester enrollment among students who cannot return to their native four-year universities.

“We’ve been hearing from families who are a little reluctant to send their students back to Colorado or Austin or wherever, talking about what’s become a popular term: ‘a gap year,’” Kurtinitis said. “But, not a gap year necessarily where you would just sit out and watch television or play video games or a gap year where you might do some kind of altruistic work.”

This nontraditional gap year would allow students to transfer courses to their native institutions when they feel it is safe to return. Kurtinitis said she also expects increased enrollment from recent high school graduates who have already taken courses at CCBC and from recently unemployed individuals. CCBC, like other community colleges, offers short-term certificate programs that can quickly prepare someone for a new career.

“I can guarantee you that the community colleges all across the country will be the go-to institution for people who have no jobs to go back to,” Kurtinitis said. “And CCBC has a huge, a very robust workforce development menu, and so we actually will be able to assist many, many, many, many of these folks who are going to come out of quarantine and find that, in the not-too-distant future, unemployment benefits end, and they have no job.”

Kurtinitis said she hopes that students will be able to return to campus later in the year. Other local community colleges are leaning toward continuing remote instruction for the duration of the fall semester. Although in-class instruction is a possibility, administrators said they prefer to save this option for high-contact laboratory science, allied health and culinary courses.

‘Very wise decision’

Montgomery College, which enrolls 20,000 students, is planning on beginning the fall semester remotely, said Sanjay Rai, senior vice president for academic affairs.

Summer enrollment so far has already exceeded last year’s total enrollment, even though Montgomery College’s second summer session has not even started. Rai said the fall courses are filling at a faster rate than in the past.

The college plans to provide free tuition and laptops to a limited number of students in eight highly transferrable courses.

Howard Community College’s summer enrollment is up by approximately 10 percent from last year even  though projections did not look promising in spring, said HCC President Kathleen Hetherington. Many students made last-minute decisions, and Hetherington said she expects fall enrollment, which is currently down, will change in a similar fashion.

Dr. Sandra Kurtinitis

“I can guarantee you that the community colleges all across the country will be the go-to institution for people who have no jobs to go back to,” said Dr. Sandra Kurtinitis, president of the Community College of Baltimore County

“People have lost their jobs. They can’t afford to have their child go to a four-year institution now. It’s not feasible,” Hetherington said. “Or if they haven’t lost their job, they’re waiting for that to happen. They’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. So, with that kind of financial uncertainty, if you know your local community college can provide your son or daughter with a quality education where they can take credits that will transfer to a four-year school, then it’s a very wise decision.”

Prince George’s Community College’s projections for the fall semester are also unclear, although summer enrollment has increased since last year. President Charlene Dukes said PGCC’s fall enrollment is currently 1% ahead of last year’s, but this may change because many students have not yet made decisions about fall course loads.

PGCC is preparing for a fall semester with a mixture of in-person and remote classes and considering multiple enrollment scenarios, including increased, decreased and stable enrollment.

In-person classes will be limited to no more than 10 people, including students and faculty members. PGCC will set up hand-sanitizing stations while requiring people to maintain appropriate physical distances and wear face coverings at all times. Students and faculty will also be encouraged to leave the campus immediately after classes are finished.

Other incentives

PGCC is providing on-campus access to technology and Wi-Fi on an appointment basis with social distancing guidelines in place. The college has waived application fees and jettisoned planned tuition increases. The financial aid office is also reaching out to families to inform them about their options.

“We understand that financial circumstances for families may have changed,” Dukes said. “And six weeks ago, or eight weeks ago, now nine weeks, maybe those families would not have been eligible for federal financial aid or state aid, and today they are.”

CCBC is tapping stimulus funds to provide financial aid to needy students. Emergency grants will allow students who drop out of a class due to the pandemic to take it again at no extra cost. The college is also considering providing textbooks for free and offering additional scholarships.

Kurtinitis said CCBC has a reopening plan that includes taking the daily temperatures of every individual on campus.

“Right now, we’re doing it as a car enters the campus from any one of our entrances. Public safety stops them, does a temperature check, and asks the CDC questions,” Kurtinitis said. “As we move closer to the end of June, we are hoping that we are able to have the thermal cameras installed. So, it won’t be something that has to be done at the entrance to campus. It will be something that is done as you enter the building automatically.”

Dan Baum, executive director of strategic communications at Anne Arundel Community College, said that AACC has been addressing financial concerns by reaching out to its community. Baum recently helped host a virtual town hall for the college, which enrolls about 40,000 students.

“We had nearly 300 people in the virtual environment who wanted to know more details about coming to the community college, the ability to transfer, should students defer, those that were considering going to four-year,” Baum said.  “So, there are a lot of questions, and we’re trying to provide all of those answers for families who may be unsure whether it’s a good idea for their student to go to a four-year at this time.”

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