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Fewer Students Are Going To Community College, Despite High Unemployment


Enrollment at U.S. community colleges has dropped nearly 8% this fall. That's according to new national data out today. It's part of an overall decline in undergraduate enrollment as students face a global pandemic and the worst economic recession in decades. NPR's Elissa Nadworny reports from a community college in western Michigan.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Community colleges teach millions of Americans, and this fall, those students are among the hardest hit by the pandemic - low-income students, student parents and Black and Latino students. Many of the campuses are mostly online, save for a handful of in-person courses in trades like nursing, welding and culinary.

BOB SHULTZ: I need one more pupusa. That's two all day.

NADWORNY: At Grand Rapids Community College, a class on international food is underway.

SHULTZ: So you - OK, do you have three steaks going? There's one. So you have two fired right now.

NADWORNY: In an industrial kitchen on campus, about half-a-dozen students in chef's aprons, gloves and surgical masks are constantly in motion.


NADWORNY: They're perfecting dishes like chicken tikka masala and arctic char with a pear vadouvan.

Just feels like the kind of class you've got to be here in person to do.

SHULTZ: Absolutely. Absolutely.

NADWORNY: Chef Bob Shultz is the instructor and the one who crafted the menu.

SHULTZ: The restaurants are open in the industry. And if we can't teach them how to do it safely, then I don't think anybody can.

NADWORNY: But the hubbub from the kitchen classroom sits in contrast to other empty spaces on campus. A student center, usually full, has one student. The enormous parking structure is largely vacant. This is the exact opposite of what was supposed to happen. Historically, when unemployment is high, students flock to community colleges to get better or different jobs. Bill Pink, the president of Grand Rapids Community College, says that's what everyone was saying would happen this year.

BILL PINK: Community colleges, you guys are going to clean up. You guys are not going to have room for all these people - that is so wrong.

NADWORNY: Here at GRCC, fall enrollment is down about 9% from last year. That's in line with what community colleges are seeing across the country. Pink sees a few factors influencing this drop - finances, students are just squeezed right now despite the low cost of tuition; uncertainty about the pandemic; and the idea of learning online.

PINK: You know what? Instead of trying to navigate online learning that I'm not really accustomed to, I'm just going to sit it out. I'm just going to work. I'm going to take a year or a semester off.

NADWORNY: Despite fewer students, GRCC is doing more. When staff here saw many students struggling to buy food, they quadrupled the size of their food pantry. It's now in a huge conference room.

LINA BLAIRE: We've got bags of rice, cans of beans, eggplants, squash, zucchini, cucumbers...

NADWORNY: Lina Blaire, in charge of student life here, points to piles of diapers and baby food.

BLAIRE: That's a major need. A lot of our students have kids.

NADWORNY: The college is also working on expanding access to technology for students with laptop-loaner programs and Wi-Fi parking lots. Community colleges are America's safety net, Blaire says. And now more than ever, that's what people need.

Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Grand Rapids, Mich.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOXTROTT'S "PATIENCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny covers higher education and college access for NPR. She's led the NPR Ed team's multiplatform storytelling – incorporating radio, print, comics, photojournalism, and video into the coverage of education. In 2017, that work won an Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation. As an education reporter for NPR, she's covered many education topics, including new education research, chronic absenteeism, and some fun deep-dives into the most popular high school plays and musicals and the history behind a classroom skeleton.