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How to Reverse Enrollment Declines at Community Colleges

Episode 56

May 4, 2021 29 minutes


Enrollment at for-profit colleges has increased or remained flat, while enrollment at community colleges is down nearly 10 percent since the onset of the pandemic.

EAB’s Christina Hubbard and Larisa Hussak share key takeaways from a recent “secret shopping” experience with for-profit institutions and explain their applicability to community colleges. They talk about the dos and don’ts of onboarding, a perennial pain point at two-year schools, and urge community college leaders to assume greater responsibility for guiding students through the application process, registration, and beyond as a way of boosting yield and building student engagement.

Christina and Larisa also stress the importance of adapting to meet growing student demand for greater flexibility in everything from course modalities to term lengths.



0:00:11.8 Speaker 1: Hello and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. This episode features two of EAB’s top experts on community colleges, Christina Hubbard and Larissa Hussak. The two touch briefly on President Biden’s proposal to make community college free to anyone who wants to attend, but they stress that regardless of what happens to that proposed legislation, it won’t fix what ails the community college sector? Christina and Larissa discuss the three biggest institutional changes they’d like to see community colleges make, and they share examples of innovations that’re already making a difference at several forward-thinking institutions. Thank you for listening and enjoy.


0:01:00.6 Christina Hubbard: Hello everyone. And welcome to Office Hours with EAB. My name is Christina Hubbard, and I’m a senior director at EAB focused on community college research and student success strategies. I’m joined today by my colleague, Larissa Hussak, who’s focused in the same areas. Welcome to the podcast, Larissa.

0:01:15.6 Larissa Hussak: Thanks, Christina. It’s great to be here.

0:01:18.6 CH: Larisa has written recently about ways to streamline the onboarding experience at community colleges as a means of improving yield. And I wanna get into that discussion in a little bit, but first, let’s lay some ground work. Even before the pandemic, community colleges we’re facing major structural challenges that are going to persist post-pandemic with or without a cash infusion from the federal government.

0:01:42.4 LH: That’s right. And speaking of a cash infusion from the federal government, we’ve heard recently about President Biden’s American Family’s plan, which has proposed $109 billion to pay for two years of free community college in his word, So that every student has the ability to obtain a degree or certificate. And obviously, this is making the rounds in the headlines and generating a lot of excitement, and I know a couple of things that community colleges in particular are excited about this proposal, is that it appears to be a first dollar rather than a last dollar award, which we know helps students who are most need. It also appears to allow for students to attend college on a part-time basis and still receive funding, which is absolutely critical for community colleges, as we know that majority of students tend to attend on a part-time basis, so I think there’s a lot to be excited here about this proposal.

0:02:36.8 CH: Yeah, on the surface, it seems like there should be a boon for community colleges, but I know you and I have talked about this quite a bit, and there are so many things that we should be cautious about. Do you wanna dig into that a little bit about some of the red flags that you see here?

0:02:49.2 LH: Absolutely, and I think, as we said, on the surface, a lot to be excited about here, but I think that we take our pragmatist eye and especially considering the partisan environment in Washington, DC and just how difficult it is to get legislation through Congress. I think we should expect at the very least that there are going to be a lot of changes to this bill before it gets passed, even if it does get passed, and so I think we’ll have to probably right size some expectations there. Another piece of caution is that at present, this Bill appears to allow states to opt out of this program, opt out of providing the funding, and so again, considering the polarized environment in DC right now, we’ll have to see how that plays out. I think the other point of caution is that even if we do see that this bill become law and we do see this influx of funding, while it’s again, absolutely fantastic for students as far as institutions go, simply providing institutions with more students and more funding for those students doesn’t necessarily remedy some of the existing issues we’re seeing with enrollment and student success on community college campuses.

0:04:03.2 LH: And so I think there’s still a lot of work to be done at institutions to make sure that even if they do get this influx of students, they are prepared to support them, they have the infrastructure in place, the support structures in place to support students on their campuses and then ultimately guide them towards whatever is next.

0:04:24.3 CH: I think that makes a lot of sense, and that’s kind of one of the things that I’m most excited about with this proposal is that it not only is focused on funding for students, but it also provides institutions with some ability to put student success efforts into the limelight in the way that they should be. And we know that we have a lot of room to improve within the community college sector, and we’re serving some of the highest need students in higher education, and that requires a lot of additional support. So I was really pleased to see that there is a focus on that as well. I think one of the things that’s really interesting here is that when we look across the past year in light of the pandemic, we had an environment where a lot of schools presented a lot of innovation across a very short period of time. We’ve been working in this environment that was truly dictated by the pandemic, and it forced us to really look at what students actually need in order to thrive on our campuses.

0:05:22.6 CH: Simply put, things just simply aren’t going to go back to the way that they were before the pandemic, and it doesn’t matter how much cash is infused from the federal government, it’s not going to fix those systemic problems that you were talking about before, but these are problems that we need to address regardless of what the federal government does hear. I think that’s really where we wanna focus our attention today, we wanna look at some of the challenges that community colleges should be focused on across the upcoming year, and I think that those really fall into three categories, the first being onboarding, making sure that those students who are actually interested in enrolling in our institutions have a clear pathway for getting into the seats in our classrooms. The second would be flexibility, making sure that those students who do enroll with us have the flexibility that they need in order to succeed in terms of curricular, expectations, length of terms and things of that nature, and then finally, what the online experience is going to look like, because I think that’s something that’s not going away any time soon.

0:06:21.7 CH: Larissa, I know you recently wrote about what community colleges can learn from the way for-profit institutions onboard their students, and we know that there’s similar pressure on these schools to move students through the matriculation process as efficiently as possible so that students can begin classes right away. What’s so different about the approach that for-profit schools use?

0:06:43.9 LH: That’s a great question, and it’s something that a lot of our partners have been asking over the past year, especially as we’ve seen community college enrollments declined quite sharply while for-profit enrollments have remained steadier even increased in some cases. And so what my research team did is we decided to secret shop the for-profit onboarding experience, and we had a researcher apply and progress through that experience to see what we can learn about how for-profit institutions were guiding students through that process. And there were a couple of key themes that came out of that that I think are absolutely applicable to the community college space. The first is that everyone is an advisor in that onboarding experience, so it didn’t matter whether the researcher was reaching out to talk about a question about an application or a Financial Aid form, every single time they contacted the institution, the person on the other end of the phone immediately guided them into a more substantive discussion of long-term goals and how that institution was gonna propel the student towards their longer-term goals.

0:07:47.4 LH: And we know from lots of research on advising that having those conversations that connect the current experience to long-term goals and desires is a great way to build student engage momentum. Of course, what this also required was that every single student-facing staff member during that onboarding period had some degree of knowledge about the entirety of the experience, and so they could speak from an informed perspective, even if they weren’t themselves, for example, a Financial Aid professional, they knew what the appropriate forms, where they knew who to contact, they knew the right resources. And so that also meant that the student wasn’t bouncing from phone call to phone call or office to office to progress through the process. And we think that’s really important, especially in the virtual world, as the practice of office hopping becomes even more laborious when you’re dealing with phones that aren’t being answered or Zoom times that aren’t aligned with your own schedule.

0:08:51.5 LH: So the idea that every student-facing staff member was knowledgeable about the entire experience, was able to have those long-term conversations with students, just made the process all the more seamless. The second theme that we came across while secret shopping the for-profit experience, was that the institution itself was responsible for the momentum of students progression through the process, not the student, and so what that meant is that when our researcher was working on their application and got part way through and then clicked out for a few days, they received an email, they received follow-up saying, “Hey, we noticed you haven’t finished your application, anything we can do to help, can we reach out and schedule a conversation? Do you need extra support here?” And well, some may argue that that was a bit intrusive as far as tracking the student’s progress, I think what it reflected was that the institution saw it as their responsibility and their priority to guide students through that on-boarding process.

0:09:57.0 LH: I think too often, community colleges take the… Community college staff members take the perspective that if students want to be here, they will get through the process, and especially right now during the pandemic, when our students are navigating so many other challenges, we need to flip the script on that, and then we need to ensure that its institutions themselves who are taking the responsibility of navigating students through the process of managing their momentum and their progression rather than expecting students to do that all on their own.

0:10:37.1 CH: I think that’s such an important point. When we think about the challenges that so many of our students are facing as they’re considering going to school, certainly it’s important to streamline that onboarding process. I know that we’ve seen that with a lot of our partners, especially those of our partners who are using Navigate, which is our Student Success Management System? The idea there is to actually take a hard look at the steps in the process for enrollment and number one, make sure that all of those steps are actually necessary, and then number two, make sure that it’s super simple for students to be able to track where they are in that process. So I agree that those relationships that they’re building on campus are really important, but we also need to make it super clear on how far they are in that process so that students understand how much is left before they actually can begin those classes.

0:11:24.6 CH: So I really like that approach of sort of blurring those boundaries of institutional roles, that if you are an advisor, it is not just academic advising that you need to be knowledgeable about, but at least the basics of Financial Aid, and similarly with Financial Aid, helping students to understand what sort of programs are actually eligible for Financial Aid, so that regardless of where the student shows up, they can get the answers to the questions that they have. So I really love that innovation there. One of the things that you talked about there that I think is really important is the flexibility that students need, we need to make sure that our students are getting the information that they need in a way that is accessible for them, and I think that’s actually a great segue into the next section that we were talking about, we know the majority of our students involved in community colleges enroll part-time, they’re balancing their academic responsibilities along with their professional and personal responsibilities like parenting, this makes for a pretty precarious balance.

0:12:21.7 CH: And you and I had the opportunity to work together on a research project a couple of years ago, we had a ton of different practices that really helped to support those part-time students, but one that always stood out to me was what we now refer to as high flex, this idea of recording a live class so that regardless of whether a student can be there in person, they can still access the content. And as we talked about many times back then when I think back to the students that I served in the community college where I worked, I think that this would have made it so much easier for students to stay on pace if they were military members who were suddenly sent TDY, they could sync with class, if they were a parenting student whose child suddenly was sick one evening or her babysitter cancelled, they still can stay on track with those classes, if there were some kind of a medical emergency, they’re still able to stay on pace with everybody else that’s in the classroom. And I think this is one of those practices that came to light much more in the pandemic. And I don’t think it’s going away. What do you think?

0:13:24.3 LH: I agree. I’m sure there are some folks who are eager for us to return to a pre-pandemic way of doing things, and certainly there are some more status quo or legacy practice that we’ll get back to once we get past the pandemic, but I think this core principle around flexibility and accessibility, I think it’s here to stay. If not driven by institutions and certainly driven by students, we’ve given them a taste of how flexible high ed can be. And as you pointed out, especially for our students with other off-campus commitments, they need that, they need that to get through higher education. And so they’re going to continue to demand some of that flexibility, and if necessary, they’ll… As the term goes, they’ll vote with their feet, they will go to the institutions that provide them with that flexibility. Well, I don’t necessarily think that every institution is going to be offering high flex options for every courses.

0:14:28.0 LH: I do think that we’re going to see increasing flexibility in terms of greater scheduling options, term lengths, timing in terms of our courses, and we’re already starting to see interest in this, even beyond the two-year sector. So I also work with our four-year partners here at EAB. We’ve seen a significant increase in request about things like condensed terms during the pandemic as institution starts to prepare for a post-pandemic reality. And condensed terms are something that we’ve been talking about in the community college space for years now, and hadn’t really taken off in the four-year space, but we’re seeing more and more institutions ask about some of these more flexible student-centric policies that they can start to implement and put in place for the post-pandemic world, so they can still meet that student need for accessibility.

0:15:25.2 CH: And I think that’s a big deal. When I look back at my undergrad, I did attend one of those institutions that had various different term lengths, and I saw with the students that I served when I was working at Northern Virginia Community College. The fact of the matter is that there are many students out there that benefit from being able to focus on just one or two classes at a time. So I just really think that flexibility is going to be critical going forward, I think that one of the things we saw across the past year is that when students were managing so many different priorities, it became so important that we addressed more of their needs. I know that a hot topic in the higher ed space right now has been related to mental health and some of the increased challenges that students are facing. Larissa, I know your team has done a lot of work in this space, and I’m curious what you’re finding.

0:16:18.5 LH: Yeah, absolutely. So I think one thing that’s clear is that the increase in mental health concerns is not a new thing amongst our students or in higher ed, but we absolutely have seen a tremendous spike and in students reporting serious mental health concerns over the course of the pandemic and we hear that across the board, across student groups, across institutional sectors, and we’ve heard from many of our institutions who have tried to adapt their mental health services into the virtual space that oftentimes demand is just off the charts for these mental health services. Another thing that my research team came across as part of our recent work on understanding students of the pandemic, we did a qualitative analysis of student social media posts, particularly students who were posting about their college experience and comparing that to post from pre-pandemic. And one of the things that was really striking and really stood out to our team was the sense of loss that is reflected in students post over the past year and how, despite the fact that many of us see this pandemic period is hopefully coming towards the end, there’s the light at the end of the tunnel in terms of vaccination and treatment, one of the things we’ve noticed is that this sense of loss has actually increased since the beginning of the year.

0:17:43.4 LH: And we’re seeing students really struggling as they’re trying to navigate attending college with again, all of the off-campus challenges that we’ve already mentioned. And this is something that I think institutions are going to have to grapple with even after the pandemic period ends. So we’ve also done some research and looked into the work in disaster response theory, which are the folks who come in after a natural disaster and help see that the community needs, and including mental health needs, that a community may have after a natural disaster, and one of the insights from that work is that the sense of loss and in some case, disillusionment, oftentimes last much longer than the emergency or the disaster itself does. And so there’s this after effect where where folks are still grappling with the impacts of the disaster situation, still trying to reconcile, trying to get back on their feet and try to see how they can move past this emergency, but it’s something that lasts beyond the immediate and present danger.

0:18:51.9 LH: And I think we can take some lessons from that work, and we think about serving student mental health in the pandemic, and importantly, post-pandemic, I think we’re gonna continue to see students struggling with this sense of loss, in some cases, as I mentioned, disillusionment, struggling with motivation, even once we are back to normal. So I think one of the critical things for institutions and community colleges to focus on now is, what is our plan for post-pandemic stress response or post-pandemic student support? How are we extending some of our pandemic era innovations? And again, that flexibility that we’re providing students as far as mental health support, how are we extending that beyond just the pandemic period and what are we preparing for in terms of meeting student needs in that new normal?

0:19:43.9 LH: One thing I’ll mention that we’re starting to see more institutions do, and that I think is the best practice, is figuring out how to embed mental health support and well-being content directly into student coursework and interactions, so this means taking principles like meditation and mindfulness, and finding ways for faculty or for student-facing staff to work discussions or activities around these practices directly into everyday student interactions so that every student, no matter whether they self-identify as needing some of that extra support, every student has access to that well-being support. And again, as we start to look towards that new normal, I think that’s gonna be especially important.

0:20:35.7 CH: Absolutely, I can see where that would definitely be a major challenge and your passion for the topic definitely comes through. Speaking of what to expect from our students, we know that the high school, juniors and seniors right now have been in an online world for about a year and a half, and overall, what I’m hearing is that they don’t really love the whole online medium, so I’m curious, what does that mean for our community college partners? What does this look like going forward?

0:21:04.4 LH: Yeah, that’s a great point. And if we can be honest, who can blame them, right? If we think about how even our higher ed institutions were struggling to make that transition and to prepare, and many, if not all higher ed institutions had at least some experience in some course teaching online or navigating the online. Then we look at our high schools who had to make that pivot entirely from scratch, I think even the term online education at this point is somewhat contested, folks prefer something like emergency remote instruction because that’s really what’s happening especially in the K-12 space. So I understand the backlash that many of our future students and our adolescents are expressing it makes sense given their current experience, but I wouldn’t… I certainly wouldn’t bank on that as reflective of the end of online or any sort of future indicator about the popularity of online.

0:22:02.5 CH: Well, I’m thrilled to hear that online education is not going away. As you know, Larissa, I have been teaching online for Northern Virginia Community College now for about 12 years. And one of the reasons that I am so excited to serve there is because of how much thought they’ve put into their online experience for their students. They really try to make it comparable to the campus experience that their in-person students get to enjoy. So I think that there are three different areas there that really make that experience for students a little bit better. So first of all, they have extensive Virtual Advising Support, so students can connect with advisors on everything from disability services to career counseling, even if they are a veteran student, they’re able to connect with somebody who specializes in military benefits. So I think that giving students that kind of access to these robust advising services is really critical.

0:23:03.6 CH: Second, they’ve really honed in on the importance of belongingness. I remember a few years ago, there were a few of us that piloted this common reading experience where students from around the world were reading the same book. And it really just kind of… They had discussions related to it, and it just was a really rich experience, and then one other thing that they did was they hired a Student Life Specialist. So again, this was somebody that they hired specifically to try to figure out what students that were enrolled exclusively online needed in order to feel connected to the campus. They tried a few different things like building out an online student union and having events, especially for those online learners, and I think that when we have those kinds of experiences, it really does help students to feel more connected to their institution, but I think one of the most impactful strategies that I’ve seen them use was live streaming speakers.

0:24:01.5 CH: So regardless of whether it was somebody coming to campus in a public forum, they would live stream that so that regardless of whether a student could actually physically be there on campus, they could still engage with that content. This is also really important when they’re hiring senior leaders, for example, and they’ll live stream those town hall forums in order to make sure that all students can see who might be leading the institution going forward, but they don’t stop there. I think one of the other things that I’ve seen there at Nova is a high-level of focus on LMS support, making sure that students understand how to use Canvas or before that Blackboard or whatever LMS school is using. They also have these Student Success Coaches that are there to help students get back on track. So if they’re facing some kind of a technological issue or maybe they have a non-curricular barrier, like maybe they’re running into food insecurity issues or they lost their job or something like that.

0:25:01.7 CH: The Student Success Specialists actually can intervene proactively with the faculty members, just sort of raising a flag that they’re concerned about their students, but they also wanna make that academic experience really rich for students as well, so they even have an online librarian who is there to make sure that students that study online are getting the same kinds of access to resources to write those term papers and all of the other rich experiences that you get from a library. So I think that’s been really valuable. I know this is one of the areas that your team has been digging into with the virtual services user experience audit, I’m kind of curious what that looks like.

0:25:44.9 LH: Absolutely. Well, first, I think what it focuses on and what our end goal is, is to build out an online experience like the one that Nova has created for its students, and I think the success of Novas online course work over the past decade plus is a reflection of their investment in the student experience. And so what this virtual service user experience audit is focused on is identifying the pain points in students non-virtual environments that make interacting with those virtual services all the more difficult. So you talked about some of the investments that Nova has made in terms of student engagement opportunities, Student Support Services, Academic Support Services, that really build out a user experience that is engaging, that is responsive to students needs and doesn’t isolate the student from the campus, but rather brings them into the fold. And that’s really what is at the core of user experience. Do the students feel connected to the institution? Are the resources accessible? Do they respond to or fulfill a need that students have? Are they in demand? And so our user experience audit allows institutions to identify some of those student-facing pain points in the virtual services or online courses that they take and start to remedy those as they consider scaling or broadening their online services.

0:27:18.2 LH: And so I think that’s something that’s going to be as we think about the future of online and demand for online, I think focused on the experience and how the non-virtual environment and experience of students lives interacts with… I mean, is supported by their virtual experience, that’s gonna be key to the success of online programs and services going forward, and I think it’s also going to be what students increasingly look for when they shop for institutions.

0:27:50.2 CH: Larissa, I think we could talk about this for hours, but I know that we are coming up on time. So in closing, I just wanted to say that when we look at what students want and need out of higher education right now and in coming years, community colleges really are the best position to provide it, they’re low cost, they tend to have a lot of career relevancy and many times, their programs are shorter and more market responsive, over-winning on these things will require sustained investment in an increasingly competitive environment. Larissa, thank you so much for joining the podcast. Your insights are incredibly valuable.

0:28:26.8 LH: Thanks so much for having me.


0:28:35.0 Speaker 1: Thanks for listening. Please join us next week when our guests share strategies for women who work in higher education and who are also working to push through barriers to reach their career goals. As always, thank you for your time.


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