BENTONVILLE -- Northwest Arkansas Community College is working to bring enrollment up to what it was before the covid-19 pandemic, but it's going to take time, officials said.
The college's enrollment was looking good in 2019, with the second-highest number of students in the school's more than 30-year history. Then the covid-19 pandemic hit.
Between fall 2019 and fall 2021, the number of students declined 16%, from 8,383 to 7,037, according to data in the school's fact book, presented at the board of trustees meeting Feb. 14.
Schools across Arkansas and the country have seen similar trends.
Nationally, enrollment at community colleges decreased 15% between fall 2019 and fall 2021, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Undergraduate enrollment at all post-secondary schools decreased 7.8% during the same time period.
Community colleges in Arkansas saw a 13% decline in enrollment between 2019 and 2021, according to data from the state Department of Higher Education. In comparison, public four-year institutions in Arkansas saw a 5% decline.
Enrollment in Arkansas' community colleges has been falling for at least a decade, dropping 36% from 61,936 students in fall 2011 to 39,539 students in fall 2021, according to department data.
Enrollment at Northwest Arkansas Community College was steadier, peaking in 2011 with an all-time high of 8,528 students, then again in 2019 at 8,383, according to the fact book. Last fall's enrollment of 7,037 students was the school's lowest since 2008.
The college saw a bump in enrollment during the great recession between 2008 and 2012, according to college President Evelyn Jorgenson. Many people were out of work, so they went back to school, she said. As the economy picked up, fewer people were going to school. Then in 2019, the college had another good year, right before covid-19 hit, she said.
"We have some work to do to get back to where we were in 2019 and continue to grow," she said.
The college, like others across the state, pivoted to online instruction in March 2020, according to Ricky Tompkins, vice president of learning. When school resumed in person in fall 2020, students were still primarily attending online.
"That's when we really started to see a decrease in enrollment, and the decreases were in specific areas," Tompkins said.
Low-income, first-generation college students were especially impacted, he said. The number of students who received federal grants fell 27.6% between 2019 and 2021, according to data in the fact book.
The pandemic seemed to exacerbate problems low-income students faced, Tompkins said. Many students lost their jobs, faced child care issues with schools and daycares closed and lacked access to the technology they needed to participate in online classes, he said.
Even though the college checked out internet hotspots, it couldn't purchase enough to fill the needs of students who didn't have internet access at home, Tompkins said. Some students didn't have a laptop and were trying to finish the spring 2020 semester on their mobile phones, he said.
"We have lost those people who need us the most," he said. "We are going to have to make a concerted effort to get them back."
The pandemic isn't the only reason for declining enrollment, Tompkins said. The college faces intense competition for students from other regional four-year institutions that are also suffering from shrinking student bodies.
The college is seeing a decline in full-time students because many students are transitioning to part time to spend more time at work, he said. Between fall 2020 and fall 2021, there was a 10.3% decrease in full-time students and only a 3% decrease in part-time students, according to the fact book.
Employment numbers are high and many employers are offering higher wages than in the past and signing bonuses, he said. Many prospective students therefore are opting to work and pay bills rather than go to college. While $15 an hour at a fast food restaurant may seem enticing now, students will need an education to prepare them for the work they hope to be doing in 10 years, he said.
Bringing students back
It will take time to bring enrollment back to what it was in 2019, Tompkins said.
The school still has more online classes than in 2019 but is also offering traditional face-to-face classes, he said. This fall, the college will finally be back to offering the same percentage of online and traditional classes as it did in 2019, he said.
The college is planning a concerted marketing effort to make sure nontraditional students understand their options. It will also be doing more recruiting at area high schools, he said.
Concurrent college classes, in partnership with local high schools, is one area enrollment has increased slightly during the pandemic. That number of students went up 0.3% in 2020 compared to the previous year and 2.6% in 2021, according to the fact book.
The school is also planning financial aid nights to help students complete their federal financial aid forms, Tompkins said.
The Arkansas Division of Higher Education is always looking to assist institutions in increasing not only enrollment, but also retention and graduation rates, said Alisha Lewis, the division's assistant director of operations. As far as enrollment declines, division officials believe covid-19 played an important role, she said.
"We just aren't exactly sure how or why it affected certain institutions and not others," Lewis said.
Northwest Arkansas Community College hopes to provide opportunities for students to achieve whatever goals they may have, whether it's transferring to a four-year college, a workforce promotion or a career change, Tompkins said.
"From our perspective we just want to be here to serve the community," he said.