Illinois community colleges see big drop in enrollment amid the coronavirus pandemic, reflecting national declines in higher education

Enrollment at Illinois community colleges plunged nearly 14% this fall, an indication that low-income and older students who typically favor the institutions might be struggling to pursue higher education because of the coronavirus pandemic.



a large brick building with grass in front of a house: Enrollment at Oakton Community College, whose Skokie campus is shown here, dropped this fall by about 12.4% to 7,079 students.


© Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS
Enrollment at Oakton Community College, whose Skokie campus is shown here, dropped this fall by about 12.4% to 7,079 students.

All but three of the state’s 48 community colleges saw substantial headcount declines, according to initial data from the Illinois Community College Board. Compared to last year, about 37,200 fewer students enrolled in for-credit classes this fall. Some of the biggest drops were among students over age 30 and in career-track courses such as nursing, construction and welding.

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The preliminary data, collected in an online survey at the end of class registration, mirrors national trends. The latest analysis by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows community colleges are suffering the greatest losses, with first-year students down nearly 23%. Countrywide, undergraduate enrollment declined about 4% across all colleges and universities.

In Illinois, community colleges serve a significant population of minority and first-generation students, said Brian Durham, executive director of the ICCB.

Many of these students already face financial or technological hurdles, which have only worsened during the pandemic, Durham said. Enrollment for African American and Latino students were down about 19% compared to a 12% decrease for white students, Durham said.

“Even those that might enroll virtually, they may have a challenge getting access to a computer,” Durham said. “They may have a challenge having enough computers to also allow their children to do virtual instruction. Or of course, it could be that people have lost jobs, or they are having housing challenges.”

In the survey sent to Illinois community colleges, many identified the pandemic as the biggest issue affecting enrollment. Colleges reported large dips in areas such as career technical education and adult education. Those courses typically require in-person instruction, which has been difficult to offer during the pandemic and possibly undesirable to students, Durham said.

Though the state’s community college enrollment has been decreasing in recent years, the drops this fall are steeper. In each year since 2016, enrollment fell between 3% and 4%, according to ICCB. This fall, overall headcount fell by 13.7%.

During economic downturns, community colleges often see demand surge. Instead of entering a shaky job market, recent graduates and adults have enrolled to earn professional certifications and increase their earning potential. This year, community colleges tried to present themselves as affordable options for students who would otherwise be living at home and taking online classes at expensive four-year universities.

Out of the grim data, one bright spot emerged from City Colleges of Chicago. While enrollment at six of the network’s seven schools decreased, the overall headcount at the Malcolm X campus on the Near West Side jumped by 4.7%. Outside of the city, McHenry County College in Crystal Lake and Shawnee Community College in downstate Ullin, near the Missouri border, saw

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