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Community College in the Time of COVID: Why Enrollment is Dropping, but Not at Nicolet

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Enrollment at community colleges across the nation plummeted last year.

Instead of worrying about classes, COVID-19 left many students unemployed, caring for family members and concerned for their health.

But enrollment at Nicolet College has stayed steady since the pandemic started.

Amanda Colón is a business management student at Nicolet College.

“Right now, I have economics, modern marketing. I had human resources too,” she said, listing her classes.

She started taking online classes more than a year ago through Nicolet MyWay, a program that lets students complete curriculum at their own pace.

This was working well for her.

A little less than a year ago, she worked third shift at the Mole Lake Casino Lodge, and if she wasn’t busy, she could do her schoolwork while on the clock.

“They allowed me to bring my own laptop, watch the videos, read my books, write my papers. Whatever it was that I needed to do, I did while I was there,” she said.

This arrangement meant she could do everything – earn a paycheck, go to school, sleep and eat family dinners.

But then COVID came, and her life flipped upside down.

The Mole Lake Casino Lodge shut down.

“So then we all ended up on employment and for some reason I wasn’t getting mine right away,” she said. “So I went a total of ten weeks with nothing at all.”

Instead of working nights, she started waking up early in the morning to take care of her stepson, her sister’s kids and sometimes her little brother – all of whom were suddenly at home instead of school.

“Trying to even focus on school became difficult,” she said. “Because trying to figure out what we were going to be doing…everything changed so quickly.”

Evidence from the Community College Research Center suggests that community college students, like Colón, have been particularly affected by COVID-19.

“The students that attend community colleges are some of the most impacted by the pandemic, like someone in their household has lost a job or they know someone that has had health issues because of COVID,” Erika Warning-Meyer, Nicolet College’s dean of enrollment, said.

This helps explain the dive in enrollment at community colleges last semester.

Compared to 2019, public two-year colleges have seen a nearly 10 percent drop in enrollment nationwide.

That’s about five times the drop in enrollment at public and private four-year institutions,  according to research from the National Student Clearinghouse.

This is a finding that bucks a trend.

Typically, an economic recession spells good news for community colleges.

“A lot of times individuals are coming back for second careers or just picking up different skills,” Warning-Meyer said. “Community colleges really focus on the more short-term, skill-based programming to help students find a job quickly.”

Most recessions, however, aren’t accompanied by a health pandemic.

“It’s not actually doing what historically it has,” Warning-Meyer said.

This is not good for a lot of public colleges already struggling financially from cuts in state funding.

But Nicolet seems to be exempt from all of this.

The college hasn’t seen a spike in enrollment since the pandemic began, but they haven’t seen a drop either.

“What’s great about Nicolet is we’re planning to remain fairly even for this academic year,” Warning-Meyer said.

So how has Nicolet managed to retain and recruit students when community colleges everywhere are struggling?

Warning-Meyer thinks there are a few reasons.

For one, the college had already ventured into online education with Nicolet MyWay years before COVID-19 became a concern.

“So for us it wasn’t that big of a shift to convert online,” Warning-Meyer said. “We’re really confident in the quality of education that we’re offering because we put that investment into the Nicolet MyWay program.”

This program also pairs students with success coaches who help students balance the demands of higher education with outside responsibilities – responsibilities that might have increased since last March.

For Colón, this support, along with the program’s flexibility, are what enabled her to continue pursuing an education.

“My advisor calls me every couple of weeks to make sure everything’s going okay. All of my professors, I can email them if I have any problems with anything and they get back to me as soon as they can,” Colón said. “I was so very grateful to have all of them because I would get concerned about things.”

When Colón lost her job, she set up a schedule so that she and the kids could work on their school assignments together.

“While they were working, I would work as well. And if they had questions, I wasn’t in a classroom where I had to pay attention, so I could stop for that moment and help them out with whatever they needed,” she said.

Now, Colón has a new job, and she’s still on track to graduate in 2022.

Erin Gottsacker worked at WXPR as a Morning Edition host and reporter from December 2020 to January 2023. During her time at the station, Erin reported on the issues that matter most in the Northwoods.
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