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Community colleges could see a surge in popularity amid Covid-19

Key Points
  • Historically, community college enrollment spikes during economic downturns.
  • This year, a public health crisis may draw even more students who don't want to travel or live in a dorm.
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The coronavirus crisis has already changed the way this year's crop of high school seniors are thinking about higher education.

And community colleges across the country are preparing accordingly. 

"Under the circumstances, families may turn to us as the gateway of opportunity, and we've been ready," said Michael Baston, the president of Rockland Community College in Rockland County, New York.

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Amid a global pandemic and sharp economic slowdown, students and families may be more likely to choose local and less-expensive public schools or community college rather than private universities far from home, according to Robert Franek, editor in chief of The Princeton Review and author of "The Best 385 Colleges."

As price becomes a growing consideration, 40% of students already have said they would attend public college and 26% have said they would choose community college, according to a separate report by the College Savings Foundation, a Washington-based research group.

For starters, community college is significantly less expensive. At two-year public schools, tuition and fees are $3,730 for the 2019–2020 school year, according to the College Board. Alternatively, at in-state four-year public schools, tuition is $10,440 and at four-year private universities it averages $36,880.

"From a college savings standpoint, I think it's the best investment you can make," Julio Martinez, executive director of California's ScholarShare Investment Board, said of community college.

From a college savings standpoint, I think it's the best investment you can make.
Julio Martinez
executive director of ScholarShare Investment Board

Historically, community colleges see an influx of students during economic downturns.

Community college enrollment spiked during the last recession, but as the economy improved, enrollments have steadily declined every year since, according to Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations at the American Association of Community Colleges. 

Still, these schools are well suited to adapt to such fluctuations, she said. "Community colleges are often called upon to implement herculean measures to accommodate as many students as they can."

This time, there are added incentives that could draw even more students, who may not want to travel or live in a dorm amid a public health crisis.

Simonkr | Getty Images

A two-year program is not necessarily an alternative to a four-year degree. Increasingly, students go from community college to a four-year school.

"It's not a bad way to knock out gateway courses, typically the 101-type classes," said Thomas Brock, director of the Community College Research Center, or CCRC.

Today, about half of all bachelor's degree earners began their education at a community college, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

At least 30 states have policies that guarantee that students with an associate degree can then transfer to a four-year school as a junior.

"So many colleges and states offer pathways from community college to four-year schools," Parham said.

Yet community colleges have struggled with sluggish completion rates and the stigma of being merely a fallback option for students with few other choices.

Although completion rates are on the rise, still, only about 40% of students who start at a two-year school finish the program in six years, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found.

In comparison, 67% of students who matriculated at a four-year public university completed their degree within six years. The rate jumped to nearly 77% for those who started at four-year private schools.

The fallout from Covid-19 could change that, Baston said.

"This pandemic will also help people recognize even further that we are a viable path."

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