Reynolds Community College works to re-enroll lost students
Since the start of the pandemic, enrollment at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College has dropped by 20%, but college officials are evaluating creative approaches to stem the decline.
Historically, when the economy goes down, enrollment at community colleges goes up. During the Great Recession of 2008, enrollment in U.S. community colleges surged. School officials expected this trend to happen when the pandemic hit.
But enrollment at community colleges nationwide fell by about 10% one year into the pandemic, according to a report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
“Community colleges get a lot more students whose lives are more complicated,” said Elisabeth Barnett, senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Community College Research Center. “You have many more students with children, you have more low-income students who are financially precarious. When there are a lot of changes going on in people’s lives, they’re less likely to take on a commitment like going to school.”
Another factor that is “pretty clearly influential” is that many people either are uncomfortable with online education, or just don’t feel like it’s as satisfying, Barnett told the Citizen.
The sharpest declines in enrollment at Reynolds Community College have been among Black students (27%) and Hispanic students (46%).
Overall, more than 60% of the more than 8,000 students at Reynolds, which has campuses in Henrico, Richmond and Goochland, depend upon some sort of financial assistance to make their way through college. During the 2020-21 school year, more than 4,200 of those students were from Henrico – the most from any locality.
“I think frankly, a lot of people are still having economic hardships, so they don’t necessarily have the resources, the ability to step away and go and get that additional education and training that community colleges provide,” said Kate Blosveren Kreamer, associate executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Career Technical Education Consortium.
“We know that we serve some of the most affluent communities, and some of the most under-resourced communities in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” said Reynolds Community College President Paula Pando in an interview.
During the past year, Reynolds has seen many students who are a couple of classes away from finishing their program but are tapped out financially.
“It’s not that they owe the college any money, it’s that they can’t come up with the money for the last class they need,” Pando said. “They may not be eligible for financial aid because they make $1 more than what would make them eligible.”
In an effort to mitigate this common situation, Reynolds’ foundation set up the Finish Line Fund. The program identifies those students who are a class or two shy from finishing and who’ve either been tapped out of financial aid or don’t have the money to pay for that last class. The Finish Line Fund pays the few hundred dollars that students near the end of their program need in order to graduate.
The model is based upon one at Georgia State University, which is recognized nationally for its work to close the equity gap, aiming to ensure that race, gender and economics are not a predictor of how likely it is a student will graduate.
From fall 2019 to fall 2021, 370 Reynolds students have received $245,335 in Finish Line Fund assistance. These resources are funded through the college’s foundation and donations from employees and community members.
The students who dropped out of Reynolds largely are low-income students, according to Pando.
In terms of gender, the enrollment decline among male students was 15%, while the decline in female students was 8%.
“What we’re seeing at Reynolds, the loss of male students, aligns exactly with what we’re seeing in higher education across the country, regardless of sector,” Pando said. “We’re seeing more women climb and stay and fewer men enroll or stay, and specifically high impact among Black and brown males.”
At the end of the 2020-21 academic year, 59.5% of U.S. college students were women, a historic high, and 40.5% were men, according to enrollment data from the National Student Clearinghouse.
The disparity between men and women in colleges has been growing in the U.S. for the past 40 years, and the pandemic accelerated the trend. There’s no comprehensive research at this time that pinpoints the reason for the loss of men in higher education, but some researchers point to family finances.
In an effort to bring lost students back to Reynolds, Pando spearheaded “Project Re-engage,” which is an all-hands-on-deck effort to re-enroll students who dropped out or stopped showing up.
These students didn’t fail out, according to Pando, which is a common misconception.
“The overwhelming majority of people who left have almost a 3.0 GPA,” Pando said. “These are bright people who can do the work. Life got in the way.”
To bring some of those students back, Reynolds has forgiven the debt of about 500 students who dropped out midstream due to the pandemic. The college used its Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund allocation, which is a federal COVID-19 emergency grant for postsecondary education institutions.
Reynolds partnered with Feed More, a nonprofit food drive program based in Richmond. Students now have access to free high-quality foods including fresh produce.
“We know students can’t learn if they’re hungry, they just can’t,” Pando said. “This pandemic certainly laid bare how many students were in need, and actually amplified or increased the number of students who needed to access those kinds of supports.”
In another effort to mitigate financial burdens, Reynolds offers its students a screening tool called Single Stop, which connects students with free social services and financial resources that they’re eligible for.
In order to fund some of the new academic supports, the college reduced administrative overhead and cut some of the highest paid positions. The money saved by reducing the cabinet to half of its original size was used to double the number of academic advisors and counselors, add more financial aid people, and hire bilingual people to work in the admissions office.
The loss of students isn’t just an enrollment issue, Pando said – it’s about community vitality.
“I’m not suggesting that higher education or a post secondary credential is the only answer,” Pando said. “But it is the common denominator throughout generations, that the more education you have, the more likely you are to move up the scale of social and economic mobility, the more likely you are to regularly see a doctor, to have health insurance, to be contributing to the tax rolls.”
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Anna Bryson is the Henrico Citizen’s education reporter and a Report for America corps member. Make a tax-deductible donation to support her work, and RFA will match it dollar for dollar.