North Texas community colleges struggle to rebound from pandemic drop in enrollment

Community college officials are thinking outside the box when it comes to increasing enrollment through unique efforts such as targeted recruitment by zip code, outreach to women, and revamping online instruction.

Community colleges in North Texas have seen a drastic drop in enrollment due to COVID-19. Dallas College saw a 15% drop from fall 2019 to this semester. Tarrant County College’s decrease was nearly 20% while Collin College saw a 4% decline.

Community colleges nationwide have been hardest hit by the pandemic, bearing the brunt of more than 65% of total undergraduate enrollment losses, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. Texas community colleges saw a 9% drop in enrollment last year, according to the Texas Higher Education Board.

Students have dropped out or opted out of college due to security concerns and budget constraints caused by the pandemic.

“Probably 80% to 90% of this decline is directly attributed to the pandemic environment we find ourselves in,” said David Ximenez, associate vice chancellor for enrollment and academic services at Tarrant County College. “Things like that create problems for students to continue past high school and then college.”

Schools are therefore exploring new ways to bring students back.

Dallas College, for example, is using geofencing, a program that shows the virtual perimeter of an area, in five Dallas ZIP codes that had a steep drop in enrollment from a year ago. Now, the same zip codes have moved in a positive direction thanks to the school’s efforts, said Marisa Pierce, associate vice chancellor of enrollment management.

From emailing and texting to registering virtual and in-person events, it was all about letting students in those areas know that support was available, she said.

Another community re-engagement was spurred by data showing a drop in the number of women re-enrolling for the fall 2021 semester, Pierce said. An empathy campaign was created not only to encourage them to re-enroll, but also to let them know the level of support the college could provide.

Women in particular have struggled during the pandemic with job losses and much of the responsibility for distance education and childcare falling on them, the data shows.

About 40,000 text messages were sent as part of the campaign. About 5,600 women enrolled at Dallas College for an 18% response rate, Pierce said.

“We are at some point, in light of what we are going through globally, that we need to be more responsive as best we can,” she said.

Officials note that enrollment numbers for this fall are not final as the semester is underway, but they are already looking to adjust their progress.

Officials at Tarrant County College, for example, said they learned they needed to look more at virtual education. Although enrollment was down overall at most TCC campuses, the all-virtual Connect Campus saw a 10% increase in enrollment in summer 2020 compared to the previous summer, as well as an increase of nearly 3 % in autumn.

While the college returned to largely in-person offerings this fall, enrollment hasn’t rebounded.

“We don’t think we offered as many online courses as our students would have enjoyed if we had just put them online for them to enroll,” Ximenez said.

Ximenez said the college collects data from students about their in-person experience through surveys and conversations. Feedback will help officials make changes if needed, such as classroom layouts or the registration process.

Meanwhile, school officials are rethinking how they help individual students.

Dallas College has created various “coaches” to specifically help students from the time they enroll until the day they graduate, transfer to another institution, or enter the workforce.

A “college coach” is basically a recruiter who helps students before they apply to school. A “success coach” then takes over, replacing the traditional role of academic advisor and helping students from financial aid applications to offering career advice, Pierce said.

“In this new student journey, we have these two coaching roles that are essential,” she said. “One brings you in and the other guides you.”

While the declines look grim for many schools, Pierce said administrators are undeterred

“We are encouraged by the fact that people, that our students are showing perseverance,” she said.

The DMN Education Lab deepens coverage and conversation about pressing education issues critical to the future of North Texas.

The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, The Meadows Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network , Southern Methodist University and Todd A. Williams Family Foundation. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of Education Lab journalism.

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