Calls for Free Community College as Fewer Go During Pandemic

01 May 2021

The year-long pandemic has led to an overall decrease of students going to colleges. The drop, however, is sharper among community colleges in the United States.

In its latest report, the National Student Clearinghouse says that college enrollment dropped nearly 3 percent overall. And community colleges saw the biggest drop of 9.5 percent from a year ago.

Doug Shapiro is the executive director of the organization. He warned that schools and policymakers "will need to work together to help bring back the learners who are struggling during the pandemic and recession."

Community colleges generally serve lower-income students. Most are two-year programs to prepare students for specific jobs or to continue at four-year schools. Many community college students attend class part-time and some are older adults already working.

The American Association of Community Colleges says tuition and fees at a community college average $3,730 a year while the costs at a public four-year university average more than $10,000 for in-state students. The information is from the 2019-2020 school year.

A student walks across campus at Malcolm X College, Thursday, April 1, 2010, in Chicago. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)
A student walks across campus at Malcolm X College, Thursday, April 1, 2010, in Chicago. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

A different recession

The coronavirus pandemic forced many businesses to close and led to economic recession in the U.S. and around the world. In the past, people often attended community colleges to seek new skills, more education or job training during a recession.

Dr. Sanjay Rai is a senior vice president at Montgomery College in Maryland. He said that during the 2008 recession, the college saw a large growth in enrollment. But during the pandemic, the college has seen a 4 percent drop.

In Montgomery County, unemployment went from 2.4 percent in December 2019 to almost 9 percent in May 2020. Rai said that more than half of Montgomery College students lost some or all of their income.

"I don't think this is a recession," Rai said of the economic struggles of the pandemic. "I think this is an entirely different phenomenon."

Todd Kitchen is an administrator at Northwest Arkansas Community College (NWACC). He said during the last recession that started in 2008, enrollment at the college was at its highest. Over the past year, his school has seen a 10 percent decrease, Kitchen said.

Kitchen believes people are more concerned with safety and health during the pandemic. "I think with the pandemic it was a bit different because of so much uncertainty, so much fear," Kitchen said. "It really caught us off-guard."

Both Rai and Kitchen said their colleges are working to meet the changing student needs during the pandemic. With increased need for vaccines around the world, Montgomery College, for example, is now offering a program in medical manufacturing.

"The most immediate need of our community is to find employment for people who have lost jobs because of the pandemic," Rai said.

Help for students

Britney Jenkins is a 21-year-old second-year student at Northwest Arkansas. She has noticed far fewer students in her classes, which are now online. As the vice president of student government, she has heard many students' concerns about paying for school.

In addition to tuition, students must pay for things like books, school supplies, housing, and other living costs.
"I am very fortunate that my parents can help me," Jenkins said. "But there are other students who when the pandemic hit, and they lost their jobs, they had to quit community college. There was no doubt about it."

Free community college, Jenkin observed, "would open so many doors for so many people."

Free community college

Seventeen states in the U.S. now offer tuition-free programs for community college. Many states, including Maryland and Arkansas, provide students with "last dollar" aid. That means the state will provide students the remaining cost of tuition after they use federal student aid.

This week, U.S. President Joe Biden presented a plan to provide two years of free community college to all Americans. The plan will also give up to $1,400 in additional assistance to lower-income students. Biden's proposal, however, will need Republican support in an evenly divided Senate.

A strong supporter of free community college is first lady Jill Biden herself. She is a long-time professor at community colleges and plans to continue during her time in the White House.

The first lady expressed her support for free community college recently in a speech at Illinois' Sauk Valley Community College. She said, "All Americans deserve the same opportunity to pursue their passions, get a great education and build a career that they love."

Sanjay Rai of Montgomery College said, "If there is any administration that can do it, I think it's this Biden administration."

I'm Caty Weaver.

Dan Novak wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.


Words in This Story

enroll v. to take (someone) as a member or participant

income -n. money that is earned from work, investments, business, etc.

tuition-n. money that is paid to a school for the right to study there

fee-n. an amount of money that must be paid

phenomenon –n. something (such as an interesting fact or event) that can be observed and studied and that typically is unusual or difficult to understand or explain fully

uncertain-adj. not exactly known or decided : not definite or fixed

off-guard- adj. not ready

deserve v. used to say that someone or something should or should not have or be given something

opportunity –n. an amount of time or a situation in which something can be done; a chance

pursue-v. to try to get or do (something) over a period of time

passion-n. a strong feeling of enthusiasm or excitement for something or about doing something