Triton VP Tracking Troubling Gap Year Storyline

Throughout the summer, many national news stories focused on students who were opting to take gap years or enroll in the local community college instead of virtually attending a much higher-priced four year institution. In recent weeks, some of those narratives have shifted, matching the troubling storyline that Jodi Koslow Martin has been tracking: students for whom the choice is stark…attend community college – or nothing. Koslow Martin is the Vice President of Enrollment Management and Student Affairs at Triton College, part of the Achieving the Dream Network, located just outside Chicago.

“What am I seeing from admissions, from the student support staff who tell me the stories about students, from the prospective students I’ve called myself, is that it’s not a likelihood that I’m choosing between the community college or the four-year institution–it’s very much the community college or not going to school,” Koslow Martin said.

Triton, which resumed in-person classes Aug. 24 (albeit under very different circumstances including new uses of large spaces and a mask mandate,) is designated as an Hispanic Serving Institution by the U.S. Department of Education and serves a significant number of Pell-eligible students. Koslow Martin said she sees a hesitancy to enroll and commit to investing resources with so much uncertainty, with potential students considering financial considerations, as well as getting sick themselves, or bringing COVID-19 home to a family member who might be of another generation or with an underlying condition. 

“The national conversation is missing the reality that the pandemic has boiled down to college or no college for a significant population.”

“Those with less resources and those of lower socioeconomic status have a higher level of uncertainly all the way around,” she said. “So, they might be thinking ‘I don’t know if I should go to school right now with everything that is going on.’ The national conversation is missing the reality that the pandemic has boiled down to college or no college for a significant population.” 

The trend was confirmed in a new report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center released Sept. 1 and found community college enrollment fell nearly 6 percent from the summer of 2019. Pell-eligible, Black, and Hispanic students are among those disproportionately impacted. 

The college was able to distribute a one-time payment of $600 to eligible students because of the CARES Act and is in the process of applying for emergency funds. Still, those one-time funds came and went for students, she said. The campus is offering free childcare, has a laptop loan program, and this summer tested a virtual navigator program that pairs faculty with staff navigator who helps students find answers to questions unrelated to the academic part of the class. 

Additionally, those who are coming back or enrolling for the first time are doing so for a clear reason: “The people who are coming are those who are coming for a clear career credential,” such as nurses, EMTs, sonographers, and medical assistants. These are more short-term credentials that go right into a health care world and offer a service to the community,” Koslow Martin said. 

Conversely, she sees significantly fewer new students in the types of liberal arts classes where students working toward a bachelor’s degree might take through community college: English, sociology, and psychology. 

Flexibility on late registration coupled with how the college worked to bring students back to campus over the summer for services, with plexiglass and repurposed areas, are part of the reason for the improved enrollment from late August.The overall climate of uncertainty led many students to wait until the very last minute to decide to enroll. As of late August, Triton was 25 percent lower in registered credit hours. But Triton’s enrollment numbers shifted considerably during late registration, and now they are only down 5.7 percent. Additionally, dual enrolled high school students also rebounded as schools started up again, she said. 

Flexibility on late registration coupled with how the college worked to bring students back to campus over the summer for services, with plexiglass and repurposed areas, are part of the reason for the improved enrollment from late August.

“We served students face to face safely – and I think that made a difference for us in the rebound,” she said. 

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