Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, where 61 percent of residents have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, is putting out public service videos online, urging students to get vaccinated before they return to campus.
“Let’s get back together. Let’s get back to doing the things that we love to do in-person,” several students say in multiple languages, including English, Spanish, Vietnamese and Russian.
Quinsigamond has also set up a drive-thru food pantry and used $2.5 million in federal relief to forgive the balances of nearly 1,687 students who owed the college an average of $1,525. President Luis Pedraja says the school wants to give them “a clean slate.”
"We want them to be able to not have that worry and to be able to focus on their education,” he said. “Hopefully, some of them will come back.”
Quinsigamond, like the other 14 community colleges in Massachusetts, is scrambling to recapture students who vanished because of the pandemic and economic downturn.
These two-year colleges tend to serve more low-income, immigrant and minority students than four-year schools. Usually, when the economy tanks, community college enrollment spikes, but not this time.
The Worcester school's enrollment, down 4 percent in the fall, dropped 9 percent in the spring. The loss was 11 percent at the state's community colleges overall in the fall and nearly 10 percent nationwide in the spring, according to the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education and National Student Clearinghouse, respectively.
“Our students, who are just in survival mode, they're trying to keep a roof over their head, put food on their table,” Pedraja explained. “To think about going to college was just a little bit too much.”
A new report from the Strada Education Network, a consumer-oriented research nonprofit, finds stress and anxiety, followed by financial pressures, were most influential on disrupted students’ decisions to delay their education. According to a survey by the College Board, community college enrollment rates declined the most among first-generation, Black, Hispanic and Native American students.
“Community colleges are going to have to get their act together,” said Davis Jenkins, who studies community colleges at Teachers College, Columbia University. “The big challenge with community colleges all along is they hemorrhage students. More than about half of their students who started a community college in the fall are gone by the next year.”
Following a pandemic that led to widespread job loss, he said, community colleges should stop withholding transcripts and degrees from thousands of students over relatively small bills.
“That’s just a rip-off,” Jenkins said. “Colleges are scamming poor people. I'm tired of talking to students who are from low-income families, and because they didn't pay a library fee, [colleges] refused to release their transcripts.”
In Worcester, Quinsigamond administrators tell GBH News the school is now reconsidering its policy, which has been to withhold transcripts for debts as small as $200. GBH News’ reporting about this issue prompted Bunker Hill Community College in Boston to reverse its policy. UMass Boston relaxed its policy on withholding transcripts for any size debt owed by current students.
To attract students, other schools across the country, like Stark State College in Ohio, are offering free tuition to graduating high school seniors. Researchers say releasing transcripts and making tuition free, though, won't be enough to enroll and retain students who are working and caring for kids.
“You can't order up students the way that you order up food,” said Shauna Davis, the strategy director for community college participation for Lumina Foundation, which supports the higher education coverage of GBH News.
Davis, the former executive director of programs at Achieving the Dream, one of the largest community college networks in the country, said schools that have managed to hold on to their students make clear the connection between courses and jobs, and how long it will take to earn a degree or credential.
“People are saying that you need to get me from point A to point B in the most clear and direct path possible and in the shortest amount of time,” she said. “People are saying that my time also costs, and especially when I have very limited amounts of time, I need to work. I need to address my hierarchy of needs. I'm parenting or I'm caretaking.”
Quinsigamond President Pedraja agrees.
“We can’t just wait for students to come here,” said Pedraja, who, as a child, emigrated from Cuba, grew up in a low-income neighborhood in Miami and was the first in his family to attend college. Like many of Quinsigamond’s students, English is his second language.
Even as birth and high school graduation rates decline in the state, disadvantaged populations are still growing. He said it’s critical that community college enrollments rebound.
“Unless we help low-income students, minority communities, our immigrants, to succeed, we're not going to be able to fill the needs of the Commonwealth for a workforce,” Pedraja said.