Enrollment at Columbia State Community College in Franklin dropped this semester as the coronavirus pandemic continues. 

Student enrollment dropped about 6% compared to the fall semester last year. However, that number is much lower than other community colleges across the U.S.

Columbia State president Janet Smith said that community colleges in Tennessee have seen enrollment drop by about 10% on average. She has talked with leaders at community colleges in other states who have seen even larger drops. 

A new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that enrollment at community colleges has dropped by about 7.5% nationwide. 

According to the report, community colleges were hit harder than other types of institutions, which also saw declining enrollment. Public, four-year colleges only saw enrollment drop by 0.4 percent. The Knoxville News Sentinel reported that enrollment at the University of Tennessee is up this year, with a record number of first year students. 

Smith said that the drop in enrollment for community colleges is surprising because normally enrollment jumps up during times of high unemployment. Without promising job prospects, students turn to community colleges to earn new skills for a low cost.

However, the current recession is far different from previous economic downturns. Thousands of people have lost their jobs in Tennessee, but it may not always be clear if the change is permanent. 

“Usually when unemployment goes up, then our enrollment goes up. This time we're not seeing that scenario. I think it's because of the way COVID has hit,” she said.

During the pandemic, many young people have also moved back in with their parents. According to the Pew Research center, more than half of young adults were living with their parents this summer, the highest level since the great depression. However, it appears that those young people aren’t signing up for community college classes. 

Smith also wondered whether some local high school students are taking a break from school — a gap year — while the pandemic continues. However, she said the school doesn’t have the data yet to fully understand how gap year students or young people living at home have affected enrollment. 

In an attempt to capture some of those students, Smith said Columbia State plans to market its shorter October session more aggressively. The program has been small in previous years, but she thinks the school could expand enrollment this year.  

“We do think there may be some young folks out there who went off to college and fall just wasn't hitting right, with COVID, and they've come home,” Smith said. “In Tennessee, they can keep their studies going and pick up a class.” 

Financially, the drop in students is bad news for Columbia State, especially coupled with a state budget hurt by the coronavirus as well. The bottom line is that there will be budget cuts. 

“To what level? I don't know. Is it going to hurt? It always hurts when you've got a budget reduction,” she said. “It's not at the point where we'll lose personnel, but we'll lose positions that we've not filled.”  

Smith also pointed out that state governments often increase funding for job training during periods of high unemployment, but that hasn’t happened this year. 

Still, Smith said she feels like the college will emerge from the pandemic stronger than ever. She estimated that about 85% to 90% of classes are now online, and instructors are figuring out how to teach online more effectively. 

That could make it easier for the college to create high-quality courses that combine online learning and classroom instruction following the pandemic. She argued that learning how to use those tools makes the college better.  

“I think we'll end up with a more blended approach in the future than we had prior to COVID,” she said. "We have been learning a lot about how to serve students remotely. How do you use Zoom orientation sessions or all-day open advising rooms (on Zoom) ... I think when we come out, we'll be stronger than when we went in.”

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