Community colleges — often viewed as the postsecondary system’s workhorses of economic growth and mobility — have seen their enrollments dip by over 10 percent during the months of the pandemic. But new, hyperlocal demand-mapping research shows that across the country, millions of adults, themselves dealing with the pandemic’s ramifications on their careers, have strong intentions to enroll in community college or technical school over the next two years.

The task now for education leaders and local and state policymakers is clear: How can they convert this overwhelming intent into real enrollment?

A team of Strada Education Network researchers led by Director of Research Melissa Leavitt examine the issue in a new study, “Powering Purpose,” which builds a case for the urgent need to invest now in community colleges.

Myriad reasons likely contributed to the community college enrollment decline, from layoffs to conflicting demands on adults who worked overtime as parents, homeschool teachers, or as their children’s remote learning tech support while schools were shuttered. 

The emotional and logistical barriers of not only going back to education as a working adult, but doing so during a pandemic, may also be leading to hesitancy. Data shows that self-doubt is among the biggest hurdles standing between adults and pursuing additional education. That barrier, along with the isolation of the pandemic, navigating remote learning, and missing face-to-face interactions with teachers may have led many to write off school for the time being.

Investing now in community colleges and technical schools offers one of our best chances at making the recovery from the pandemic an equitable one. Half of all black and Latino postsecondary education students are served by community colleges, and the average students’ age is 28. At the same time, the enrollment declines have been particularly pronounced among students of color and older students. 

This is risky for our society and economy. We already know individuals who don’t complete a college degree are more vulnerable to economic displacement. And while the displacement caused by the pandemic might be a once-in-a-generation event, researchers believe rapid advances in technology will bring only more displacement. Individuals who can’t find their way back to postsecondary education now may be left out of high-growth industries, such as cybersecurity and health care, leaving them more vulnerable in the long run.

In “Powering Purpose,” Strada researchers honed in on several promising ways to mobilize the strong intent to enroll and do so in a way that supports learners from diverse backgrounds. Their insights include:

  • Guidance and coaching are essential to addressing the challenges many adult learners experience with self-doubt and a lack of access to clear information. Large numbers of adults who intend to enroll in community college or technical school will be the first in their families to pursue postsecondary education, and many are experiencing fear that they won’t be successful in education or confusion about critical aspects of the educational journey. 
  • The ability for many adults to persist in their postsecondary education programs depends on access to basic needs like food, transportation, and housing. Nearly one-third of the 20.5 million adults who expressed intention to enroll earn less than $24,000 annually. In order to succeed as students, individuals with low incomes must have a way to access life’s necessities.
  • Adult learners need to be able to earn while learning and providing for their families. More than half of those who intend to enroll are already working full-time and have children. Our education system will need to find a way for them to continue to support their careers and families by providing opportunities like paid internships or apprenticeships and childcare access.
  • Implementing supports through a lens of racial and social equity is crucial to supporting students of color from enrollment to career. More than half of adults intending to enroll are Black or Latino, so in order to help those students complete their education and achieve meaningful career outcomes, student support must be designed from the perspective of helping institutions serve these students better.

    Schools such as Valencia College in Florida, the “Powering Purpose” report notes, already have seen the dramatic effects this approach can have. After adopting equity-focused advising, academic, and career support, the school eliminated completion gaps by race.