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How the pandemic hurt Louisiana community college enrollment, even as 4-year schools grew



LOUISIANA – Echoing national trends, enrollment at Louisiana’s community and technical colleges fell by as much as 28% and 11 of 12 schools showed declines, officials said Monday.

The overall headcount for the fall, 2020 semester was 53,006 students compared to 59,936 for the fall of 2019 – a 12% drop.

The chief culprit for the dive is the coronavirus pandemic.

“COVID absolutely had an impact on our enrollment,” said Quintin Taylor, chief public affairs officer for the Louisiana Community and Technical College System.

Students who attend two-year community and technical colleges are typically older than traditional college students, and more at the mercy of economic upheaval and unemployment.

Many have families and attend school while also holding fulltime jobs, often in a bid to improve work skills to boost their salaries.

The list includes Baton Rouge Community College, down 9% to 7,376 students; Delgado Community College in New Orleans, down 6% to 13,262 students and South Louisiana Community College, which has campuses in Lafayette and elsewhere, down 13% to 5,855 students.

SOWELA in Lake Charles, which was buffeted by back-to-back hurricanes last year in addition to the pandemic, showed the largest decline at 28%, to 2,924 students.

The college suffered between $75 million and $100 million in damages when Hurricane Laura struck the Lake Charles area on Aug. 27. Hurricane Delta arrived shortly after.

Others are Northshore Technical Community College, Lacombe and other campuses, down 24% to 3,552 students; Central Louisiana Technical Community College in Alexandria, down 17% to 2,099 students and Northwest Louisiana Technical Community College, Shreveport and other campuses, down 16%, to 935 students.

Taylor said that, in the early stages of the pandemic, many community college students had to scramble to make child care arrangements and to grapple with their own children’s sudden change in instruction. “Our students are not the typical 18-, 19- and 20-year-old student,” he said.

He said another factor in the decline was that fact that, because of the pandemic, some high school graduates opted to attend four-year universities because the temporary suspension of ACT and SAT requirements allowed them to do so without having to achieve traditional qualifying scores.

BRCC Chancellor Willie Smith said Monday his school took an unusual step to check on students.

“We did cold calling and said ‘You have not enrolled, can we do anything?'” Smith recalled. “Most of the students just said they were concerned about the COVID, getting the virus.”

“They wanted to make sure we had socially-distanced rooms,” Smith added. “It was mostly safety more than anything.”

Most of the drop in enrollment was among first-time freshmen. The average age of students at BRCC is 26.

The chancellor said enrollment in technical classes also suffered because of state-ordered limits on room capacity in a bid to stop the spread of the virus.

Smith said spring enrollment is down about 3 percent, which is better than most other community and technical schools around the state.

Taylor also said there are signs that spring enrollment is better than fall and the outlook for students returning to campuses in the fall of 2021 is better still.

“We feel good about what is on the horizon,” he said.

LCTCS President Monty Sullivan was out of the office Monday.

The one outlier in the state on enrollment numbers is Nunez Community College in Chalmette, which showed a 3 percent increase in its enrollment, to 2,166 students.

The picture in Louisiana mirrors national trends.

Enrollment at community colleges fell 10% between the fall of 2019 and the fall of 2020, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. The drop in students at community colleges is in sharp contrast to how four-year colleges and universities have fared.

Despite national forecasts of big drops in enrollment, LSU and Northwestern State University had record-breaking numbers by signing their largest classes in school history.

Nicholls State University also produced its biggest class since 1990.