The Pandemic Hit the Working Class Hard. The Colleges That Serve Them Are Hurting, Too.

The coronavirus pandemic has been uniquely hard on America’s working class, causing higher unemployment among people without college degrees and eliminating low-wage jobs by the millions. Now, the education system created to help those very workers also is in jeopardy.

Colleges of all types are struggling under the shadow of the coronavirus, but the nation’s community college system has been disproportionately hurt, with tens of thousands of students being forced to delay school or drop out because of the pandemic and the economic crisis it has created.

Enrollment is down by 9.5 percent at the more than 1,000 two-year colleges in the United States compared with numbers from last spring, according to figures from the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit organization that found a similar drop last fall. That is more than double the loss experienced by four-year schools.

Community college enrollment among Black and Hispanic students has declined even more sharply, with a 19 percent drop from fall 2019 to fall 2020 among Black students and a 16 percent drop among Hispanic students. Of the nation’s five million students enrolled at community colleges, about 40 percent are Black or Latino and nearly half are low-income, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.

“Many of our students come to college with challenges,” said Tracy D. Hall, president of Southwest Tennessee Community College in Memphis. “Now you add a pandemic to that, it just exacerbates it.”

Community colleges, a vast majority of which are state-run schools, have historically provided a low-cost alternative for students who lack financial backing from their parents or academic preparation for four-year colleges. They also are a critical training ground for students seeking jobs in local businesses, from auto mechanics and welders to dental hygienists. About 27 percent of the nation’s more than 17 million college students are enrolled in two-year programs.

President Biden, whose wife, Dr. Jill Biden, is a professor at a community college, has cited the importance of community colleges to educational equity. In the coming weeks, he is expected to propose making two-year schools free as part of the $3 trillion rebuilding plan that he began rolling out on Wednesday.

By arranging free tuition for many, though possibly not all, students, the Biden plan would also free up other forms of federal aid to low-income students, such as Pell Grants, to pay for things like housing, food or books, according to congressional aides who have been briefed on aspects of the proposal. Food and housing insecurity are often cited as major reasons for low-income students to drop out of college.

Over all, community colleges in Tennessee have lost about 10 percent of their total enrollment, mirroring the national figures. Southwest, a two-year public school with seven locations in the western part of the state, has lost 19 percent of its enrollment in the past year, making it one of the most profoundly affected of Tennessee’s 13 community colleges.

At Southwest, about 800 Black men have paused their studies. Now there is concern that the pandemic will permanently derail their educational paths, along with low-income and minority students across the country — potentially deepening educational inequities with white students.

“It’s depressing,” said Russ Deaton, executive vice chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, which oversees community colleges in the state. “A lot of the students we’ve lost were loosely tethered to higher education anyway. It didn’t take much to push them out of the education path.”

Many community college students are adults — the average age is 28 — and even before the pandemic, they struggled to stay in school, juggling academic work with financial pressures, child care needs and even homelessness. Before the pandemic, statistics showed that at least 40 percent of students at community colleges left school before earning a certificate or degree.

For these students, the pandemic upset an already difficult balancing act, leaving many just plain exhausted. For Corey Ray Baranowski — a 33-year-old father of five children, age 5 months to 11 years old — the breaking point came last year.

Before the health crisis, Mr. Baranowski and his wife juggled their large family, several jobs and studies at Jackson State Community College, another school that was hit hard by the pandemic, in Jackson, Tenn., 90 miles northeast of Memphis.

The dominoes started tumbling last spring, when the pandemic reached his small community of Lexington, Tenn.

First, the school system where both Mr. Baranowski and his wife, a photographer, had worked as substitute teachers shut down. Then, that same day, their three school-age children were sent home to learn remotely. Their community college also suspended in-person classes.

“It was unsettling,” Mr. Baranowski recalled. He and his wife, then expecting their fifth child, struggled to keep up their own schoolwork while making sure the children did theirs, overloading the family’s home computer capacity — and their multitasking skills.

“There were some bologna sandwiches and peanut butter and jelly going on, trying to manage money,” Mr. Baranowski said. Overwhelmed, he dropped two classes last spring and decided not to re-enroll this year.

But in August, Mr. Baranowski found a job at a juvenile correctional center. The couple hopes to return to college next fall.

“My goal is to graduate and become a teacher,” he said.

As George Pimentel, the president of Jackson State, puts it, “Many of our students have just hit the pause button.”

Community colleges normally lose students during boom times when jobs are plentiful, then see enrollment increase during economic downturns as unemployed people seek training for new careers — as happened after the recession of 2009.

So why is there currently an enrollment bust during a downturn? One theory is that the relief packages enacted by Congress, combined with the hope that jobs will return swiftly once the pandemic is over, have made those who are unemployed less apt to enroll in community colleges to retrain for new careers.

“There’s always been a sense that jobs are going to come back as soon as the numbers go down, so why would you start a degree program?” said Doug Shapiro, executive research director for the National Student Clearinghouse.

Another theory is that many of the skills taught at community colleges do not transfer well to online teaching formats. Rushton W. Johnson, vice president of student affairs at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tenn., which has had a 15 percent enrollment decline since last spring, says the pandemic was a “perfect storm” for community colleges.

“It’s impossible to learn to weld, drive a truck, cook, draw blood, wire a network online, without handling the equipment and tools,” Mr. Johnson said.

While many low-income students in Tennessee can attend community college tuition-free by using federal and state grants, job disruptions have made it difficult for many to pay for basic living expenses.

Last spring, Katie Dollar, 25, could no longer afford rent when the game arcade where she was working closed because of the pandemic. She packed up and returned home to live with her father, with plans to continue her studies at Pellissippi online.

But the balky satellite internet service at her father’s rural Tennessee farm made it impossible for her to participate in remote classes. “Livestreaming classes was not an option,” Ms. Dollar, a theater student, said.

She decided not to enroll in the fall, but she is back in school this semester after landing a job at a Trader Joe’s and a new apartment.

Enrollment declines have been particularly steep among first-year students who have never attended college at all, including high school graduates of 2020. Freshmen enrollment dropped by 19 percent at community colleges in Tennessee.

The pandemic has also blown a hole in community college budgets, forcing layoffs in some cases. The financial hit to community colleges has been exacerbated by state funding cuts aimed disproportionately at two-year colleges, according to a recent study by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. Southwest is facing a budget shortfall — more than $10 million — and is hoping to be rescued with funds from the $1.9 trillion stimulus package signed this month by Mr. Biden.

Of the nearly $40 billion that is allocated for colleges in the bill, an estimated $12.7 billion will go to community colleges, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.

With its main campuses in Memphis, a predominantly Black city, Southwest is expected to receive about $12 million from the stimulus package.

Dr. Deaton, of the Tennessee Board of Regents, said that aggressive outreach to students could be the key to encouraging many of them to re-enroll. Community colleges throughout the state are already working to lure back the students who had their education disrupted by the pandemic.

Southwest has begun such outreach, convincing 80 Black male students to return. It also purchased 3,500 laptops for students, installed wireless internet coverage in a parking lot and provided hot spots in some homes to encourage students to stay enrolled.

But Southwest has yet to persuade Charles Moore to come back.

A year ago, Mr. Moore, 20, was supporting himself by waiting tables while studying criminal justice at Southwest. Then the coronavirus spread to the United States and his plans for a college degree fell apart.

First his employer, the Olive Garden, laid him off. When his campus shut down and shifted to remote classes, he struggled to adapt to learning online. He was able to get a new job in security, but it required him to commute into Mississippi, leaving him little time to do his schoolwork. In May, he dropped out.

Mr. Moore says he wants to be a sheriff’s deputy, a job that does not require a college degree. So amid the uncertainty and unpredictability of the pandemic, he has made no immediate plans to return to school.

But he still thinks about campus life, about being exposed to new people and ideas, about getting “that college experience.”

“It felt like I was headed toward something,” he said.

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