Minnesota's community colleges are bleeding students during the COVID-19 pandemic, a reversal of what has typically occurred during economic downturns.

Fall enrollment has shrunk an average of about 6% at the 30 community colleges in the Minnesota State system compared with last year, according to figures compiled on the 30th day of the fall semester. About a third of the community colleges recorded enrollment losses exceeding 10%.

Community colleges across the country had hoped for a boost in enrollment because of the increasing number of people who have become unemployed during the pandemic. In previous recessions, many who lost their jobs pursued two-year degrees to improve their skills and quickly re-enter the workforce. The pandemic has played out differently, however, with community colleges suffering the most among higher education institutions. The National Student Clearinghouse reported last month that community college enrollment was down about 9.5% nationally, compared with a roughly 1.5% decrease for public universities.

"You have people that are looking for how to pay their rent or how to put food on their tables … It could be that taking a class is just not a priority as they juggle all of their other responsibilities," said Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations for the American Association of Community Colleges.

Economic uncertainty is what St. Paul College Interim President Deidra Peaslee believes is driving her school's 13% enrollment decline this fall. Current and prospective students have struggled with everything from food insecurity to accessing the technology needed for distance learning, she said.

Some St. Paul College students have chosen to take a gap semester or reduce their credit load, Peaslee said. Nearly half the school's students are age 24 or older, and many have families to care for during the pandemic.

"They don't have as much of a safety net from the economic perspective," she said. "While our enrollment is not where we wanted it to be, it is not something that we didn't foresee."

Hennepin Technical College is also experiencing a 13% enrollment drop compared with last fall, stemming from decreases in new and current students as well as a 17% reduction in its postsecondary enrollment option program, which lets high school students earn college credit.

About half the school's students are struggling over basic needs, said Jessica Lauritsen, Hennepin Technical College's vice president of student affairs. The college participated in a national survey earlier this year that found 18% of Hennepin Technical College students had lost jobs during the pandemic and about a third had their work hours cut.

At Lake Superior College in Duluth, fall enrollment is down 15% from last year, but demand is still strong for career and technical education programs such as nursing, aviation and respiratory therapy, all of which have waiting lists. The college does not have enough classroom space to accommodate more students under social distancing requirements, said Daniel Fanning, vice president of institutional advancement and external relations.

Administrators are cautiously optimistic the school's outlook will improve. Lake Superior College had seen steady enrollment growth in recent years as it ramped up recruitment of students from outside regions such as the Twin Cities and Wisconsin. Those students are staying closer to home this year, Fanning said, but he believes recruitment from those areas could pick back up when the pandemic subsides. Spring enrollment is also trending in the right direction.

"Some of those students who maybe took off the fall are … thinking about taking at least some classes in the spring and then coming back full-time in the [next] fall," Fanning said.

Just four Minnesota State community colleges saw their enrollment grow this fall, according to system data. Rochester Community and Technical College saw the largest bump at about 4%. Michelle Pyfferoen, the school's vice president of academic affairs, attributes the increase to an unexpected surge in PSEO enrollment.

Minnesota State universities are generally faring better than community colleges. The seven universities in the system have seen an average enrollment decrease of about 3.5% this fall, with St. Cloud State University logging the steepest decline at 10.5%.

Financial repercussions

Community college leaders say they have made adjustments to offset lost tuition revenue and should be able to weather enrollment losses in the short term.

St. Paul College cut travel and event costs as well as the number of classes being offered this fall. Hennepin Technical College administrators hope to save money through employee attrition. Lake Superior College laid off six employees and parted ways with five others through early retirement incentives; most of the positions will not be refilled.

"We're trying to tighten our belt as much as we possibly can," Fanning said.

Mike Dean, executive director of the statewide community college student association LeadMN, said even short-term enrollment loss should be taken seriously. It could lead to a less educated state workforce. Minnesota State colleges could also face state budget cuts in the coming years, and if their enrollment does not rebound, they will have less revenue to fall back on.

"To take enrollment declines and declines in state revenue at the same time would just have … a devastating impact," Dean said. "I don't think their reserves are going to be able to buoy them enough."