RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
The pandemic has had a profound effect on college enrollment. Colleges are missing more than half a million students, according to new data. Community colleges have taken the hardest hit. So what are schools doing to find and enroll new students while holding onto the ones who enrolled before the pandemic?
NPR's Elissa Nadworny has been visiting campuses, talking to a whole lot of people. She joins us now. Hi, Elissa.
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: So first, this new data. What can you tell us about the spring numbers?
NADWORNY: Well, it's pretty bleak. You know, we had a horrendous fall numbers. More than half a million students didn't show up for college. A lot of folks were hoping that this spring we'd start to see some of those students enroll. But spring numbers are actually slightly worse than fall. Community colleges are again down 10% from a year ago. Here's Doug Shapiro, who leads the research team at the National Student Clearinghouse, where the data comes from.
DOUG SHAPIRO: There's no quick turnaround here. There's no snap back for public colleges. It's really staggering. There's never been anything that dramatic for any sector.
NADWORNY: The largest group of students that are missing are actually new students. Much of that is the class of 2020. In that group, researchers found the decline to be twice as worse for low-income students than wealthier students.
MARTIN: So what are the implications of this decline?
NADWORNY: Well, this is going to have a long-lasting legacy for higher ed and for the economy at large. You know, think about it. You got fewer students this year, so that means fewer sophomores tomorrow, fewer transfer students getting a bachelor's degree, fewer graduates. And we're talking about community colleges, so they tend to serve more low-income students, more student parents, more students of color. They're places that really open up the door to people left out of college.
MARTIN: Elissa, as you've looked at this, are there any colleges that have figured this out, that have been able to buck this trend?
NADWORNY: Well, we visited Valencia College. They're a community college that serves about 50,000 students in Orlando, Fla. Heading into the fall, they were looking at a 20% deficit - so that's about eight to nine thousand students - and they made all of it up.
NADWORNY: Well, they changed a few things to make it easier to be a student. So for new students, they waived the application fees. They extended deadlines. For existing students, they allowed students to retake classes for free. My favorite thing that they did - anyone who failed a course last spring when everything went online, they gave them a $500 scholarship to come back and take another class.
NADWORNY: Kathleen Plinske, she's the provost at the college, she told me this idea came from talking with students.
KATHLEEN PLINSKE: They know how many paychecks it takes to pay for a particular class. And so I have heard from students that when they fail a class, they do the math. That might be a reason why students sort of give up on their dreams of pursuing a college education and a college degree.
NADWORNY: The other big thing they did because they knew so many people are isolated and alone, they made tens of thousands of phone calls. Current students, potential students, they wanted them to feel connected. I want to introduce you to some of the students who were on the other end of that phone line.
NADWORNY: So Jay Ledezma, (ph) he's 26. He's a student at Valencia College with dreams of opening up his own nonprofit.
JAY LEDEZMA: I've definitely thought about kind of running my own indoor soccer facility.
NADWORNY: That goal felt far from his mind last spring when midway through the semester he got furloughed.
LEDEZMA: Little did I know that that'd be the last time I would clock in at my job before I was eventually laid off a couple of weeks after.
NADWORNY: He went from stability and easily covering rent to trying to pick up hours on delivery apps like DoorDash and Uber Eats.
LEDEZMA: I would wake up at 5 in the morning, study for about one to two hours and I would work nonstop delivering, DoorDashing, ending my day around 11 p.m. A lot of the times, I was just making it, skimming by.
NADWORNY: He'd squeeze in homework and class where he could. Some days, he thought about dropping out. It was students like Jay that Valencia wanted to make sure they held on to. So they enlisted staff from all across the college to pick up the phone and call them.
BETTY BLACKBURN: I'm Betty Blackburn. I work for Valencia in the Testing Center.
NADWORNY: The pandemic meant that the testing center wasn't open, so Betty got to work on the phones. Some days, she made up to 400 calls to students. They told her about losing jobs, struggling to pay rent. One woman had recently lost a pet.
BLACKBURN: And she asked if she could keep my number and call, and I told her, you can call me anytime. Absolutely.
NADWORNY: Betty would tell students that they could retake a class for free or she'd tell them about mental health services or food and housing assistance. For many, that was enough to stay enrolled.
BLACKBURN: They just needed to know people cared and just knowing that we were there for them. Some of them were very unsure if they were going to continue, but a lot of them did continue after the call.
NADWORNY: Jay Ledezma took Valencia up on their offer to pause his hardest class in spring - business law - and retake it the next semester. That small change, it meant he didn't have to drop out.
LEDEZMA: The stress was always there. The stress always lingered, but it gave me the opportunity to kind of, like, sharpen my focus towards working.
NADWORNY: That focus allowed him to find reliable part-time work. And he kept up his classes. He's now closing in on that degree.
LEDEZMA: I'm still going to school and haven't stopped, still pushing through and a lot of, like, all-nighters.
JEHAN TEELUCKSINGH: I didn't even want to go to college, like, to be honest. I didn't think it was for me.
NADWORNY: The outreach from Valencia, it worked on Jehan Teelucksingh, too.
TEELUCKSINGH: Yeah, I was really close to just, you know, finding a good job.
NADWORNY: She graduated from St. Cloud High School just outside Orlando, part of the class of 2020. It was an isolating and stressful time, experiencing senioritis from home, away from counselors and teachers. Out of the schools her parents made her apply to, Valencia was the most persistent and the most helpful.
TEELUCKSINGH: The one word I would describe it, I was welcomed. I felt welcome.
NADWORNY: She's planning on studying computer engineering - though that's the fifth major she's considered.
TEELUCKSINGH: And I've changed my major so many times. It feels like I've been in school for, like, six years now, even though it's just been a year. I think my adviser's kind of fed up with me (laughter).
NADWORNY: She's also now a tour guide for the school, and she set out to do some recruiting of her own friends. Many of them decided to forego college this year, mostly because of COVID.
TEELUCKSINGH: Everybody that planned just hasn't gone. They're doing, like, their own things. They have a job. I think I'm one of the few that are going to college at the moment.
MARTIN: Wow. I mean, she's the only one of a very small group in her friend group to go to college, Elissa. What does this say about the graduating class of 2020?
NADWORNY: Well, they are by far the biggest group missing from higher ed right now. And the thing is time is ticking to get these students in the classroom because research shows after a year off, it can be really hard to go back to college. I mean, you're working, you're supporting your family. And that's a legacy that we're going to be feeling for generations to come.
MARTIN: NPR's Elissa Nadworny, thank you.
NADWORNY: You bet.
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