Declining enrollment highlights the need for colleges to better understand their students

In a segment on how community colleges are working to bring students back to school post-pandemic, aired earlier this month, PBS NewsHour highlighted some of the challenges America’s students have been facing since the pandemic first brought a halt to normal life over a year ago.

Last year, institutions of higher education saw steep declines in enrollment from the fall 2019 to fall 2020 semesters, with community colleges hit the hardest — a drop of nearly 10 percent nationwide.

Since the fall semester, while the outlook for COVID-19 has improved thanks to vaccines becoming widely available, the trend in enrollment has only worsened. Overall enrollment fell by 11.3 percent from spring 2020 to spring 2021, and racially minoritized students have been disproportionately affected: Enrollment of Black students declined by 14.7 percent, Latinx students by 13.7 percent, and Indigenous students by a staggering 19.4 percent.

To ensure that community colleges can continue to be — and improve as — equitable hubs of learning and growth, it’s more important than ever for these institutions to holistically understand their students so that they can design an experience that meets students where they are.

Knowing Our Students

Achieving the Dream recently (ATD) held a free webinar to introduce Knowing Our Students: Understanding and Designing for Student Success, a guidebook produced in partnership with the Advising Success Network. The guidebook is designed support educational leaders in better understanding their students as individuals with complex identities and experiences, and using relevant data to inform decisions about the college experience.

Knowing Our Students was initially conceived of during a time when “the field had started to understand the importance of treating students as the humans that they are, and how different aspects of their lives affect their college journey,” said Julia Lawton, director of program administration at ATD, during the introductory webinar.

More and more, college leaders are embracing the importance of comprehensive data that gives their institution a thorough, nuanced, and compassionate view of who their students are, an early but critical step in designing an educational experience that meets students where they are and sets learners up for success.

Data that is useful in driving student success is thorough, nuanced, and importantly, intersectional. “Critical to understanding students as humans is the fact that we all have intersectional identities that affect how we experience the world,” Lawton said.

Community college students are not merely Latinx, or working part-time, or caregivers— each student carries multiple intersecting identities, and they take their whole selves to the classroom with them. Understanding those identities with empathy and humility is an early and important step in designing an educational experience that supports all students. But what comes next?

“Once we understand who our students are, what information is useful and how can we use it?”

During the webinar, Lawton shared examples of institutions who identified trends, gathered and examined student data to discern underlying causes, and executed strategies that removed barriers inhibiting student success. The (Re)Connect to College program at Cleveland State University, for example, identified factors that were preventing students from completing their degree, and launched a proactive outreach campaign to connect students to new and existing support services so they could re-enroll.

Policies and Practices

Talking to PBS NewsHour, Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) president Dr. Anne Kress talked about the policies and practices that the college rolled out in response to the pandemic, which may have contributed to enrollment actually increasing at the college last year: NOVA provided $750,000 in emergency aid, loaned laptops to students, set up WiFi hotspots in parking lots, and built out remote student support services.

Across the country, in response to a national crisis, colleges have been implementing changes to instruction and administration that center the needs of the diverse student body that they serve. As the crisis ebbs and we eventually enter a new, changed normalcy, it will be important for higher education institutions to continue designing educational experiences based on a holistic understanding and a sense of empathy for the students they are serving. This work will be critical to expanding equitable access at community colleges—not only to help reconnect with students who have had to put their educational journeys on hold, but to reach previously un-tapped communities who stand to benefit most from the education, training, and support that community colleges offer.

The Knowing Our Students guidebook includes many more examples of colleges implementing design changes to better serve their students, and provides recommendations and questions for leaders and teams to consider as they begin the work of better understanding and more comprehensively serving their students. Learn more.

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