Colorado community colleges post enrollment gains

For the first time since the pandemic began, enrollment at the majority of community colleges in Colorado rose slightly from a year earlier.

But the increase is largely due to high school students taking classes for college credit, while enrollment of working-age adults remains well below pre-pandemic levels. Overall enrollment still has a long way to go before it returns to 2019 levels.

Numbers from the Colorado Community College System for the first week of September show an increase of nearly 3%. All but five community colleges in the state saw more students on campus. Two others saw very small declines.

Community college leaders say that’s a bright spot after efforts to attract students to campus.

Pueblo Community College president Patricia Erjavec said students were starting to come back and her school also helped students stay in college once they started. Enrollment at the start of the fall semester is up a modest 1.3% so far this year over last, to about 4,700 students.

“We really hope that over the next few semesters we can continue to make gains,” she said. She wants enrollment to go back up to 5,000 students, matching 2019-20 figures.

Still, Landon Pirius, the system’s vice chancellor for academic affairs, said the positivity is tempered by the fact that students are still not showing up the way they were before the pandemic and after previous recessions where enrollments have fallen. increase.

Enrollment in high school college-level classes overall rose 18%, or 3,540 students more than last year’s 19,449. Pirius said those numbers are expected to rebound once schools fully resume in-person instruction.

These figures are slightly offset by steep declines among adults aged 21 to 39. In total, the system lost another 1,300 adults in this age group. Last year, around 28,000 students between the ages of 21 and 39 enrolled in the system.

The next few years could continue to pose an uphill battle to attract adults. Previous trends show that students do not enroll when labor markets are strong. Today, many prospective students are earning more money than ever before in entry-level jobs.

Pirius said he fears the continued decline in enrollment could trigger cuts in state financial support – and, therefore, the level of service the system can provide or the overall cost to students.

The state weighs funding based on a three-year average, Pirius said, and for the past two years schools have relied on federal pandemic relief money to help offset declines. registration. These funds are limited and will run out.

“We primarily serve an underrepresented population,” Pirius said. “It’s worrying that if we get less money, we can serve fewer people. And that makes us less ready to serve students from the communities we traditionally serve when we see an influx.

Meanwhile, a few universities, like the University of Colorado at Boulder, have more students on campus.

Pirius pointed out that the state and community college system has efforts underway that could make a difference for students and for enrollment in general.

The state expanded Finish What You Started to help bring the state’s 700,000 college-educated but non-graduate students back to campus. Colorado will also provide free short-term training to aspiring medical professionals with federal funding. Pirius hopes these students will then take up the message of the importance of college and the help schools can offer their communities.

And next year, the state’s rural colleges will also expand program offerings to students across the state through online courses.

Erjavec said the support students receive, especially financially, helps them get on campus and stay there. This is part of the reason why Pueblo saw its slight increase.

Programs such as Pueblo’s Return to Earn, the basis of Finish What You Started, have brought hundreds of college dropouts back to campus. The college also sends letters of support to students who have just graduated from high school, telling them they are automatically accepted with a $1,000 scholarship, she said. The school also meets the needs of life, such as food, clothing or day care.

“We try to embrace our students,” Erjavec said, “and make sure we capture everyone interested in getting a degree or certificate.”

Jason Gonzales is a journalist covering higher education and the Colorado legislature. Chalkbeat Colorado partners with Open Campus on higher education coverage. Contact Jason at [email protected].

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