Philly-area community colleges rebound after pandemic

‘We’re still the viable option that enables students to go from where they are to where they want to be,’ Donald Guy Generals said

By: - May 2, 2023 9:42 am

Students leave the Bonnell Building at the Community College of Philadelphia (Philadelphia Tribune photo)

By Chanel Hill

PHILADELPHIA — In recent years, community colleges have been challenged with enrollment drops, but Donald Guy Generals, president of Community College of Philadelphia, said that colleges and universities across the country are facing those same challenges.

“The entire higher education industry is challenged with enrollment,” Generals said. “You have demographic shifts, economic shifts as well as artificial intelligence and the digital space, which enables people to move into greater entrepreneurial opportunities.

“We’ve seen a decrease in enrollment, but the difference between us and them is that we still are the affordable choice,” he said. “We’re still the viable option that enables students to go from where they are to where they want to be.

“We have an open admissions policy so students can come in and they can then transfer to just about any college in the country. We’re in beta flux, but Community College of Philadelphia is absolutely up to the challenge to meet those challenges,” Generals added.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, the number of students at community colleges has fallen 37% or by nearly 2.6 million since 2010.

Nationwide, undergraduate college enrollment dropped 8% from 2019 to 2022, with declines even after returning to in-person classes, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse.

Generals said CCP has stabilized its student enrollment since the pandemic and he’s optimistic that the college will continue to turn the numbers around.

CCP is a public community college with campuses throughout Philadelphia. The college offers more than 100 associate degree, certificate and continuing education programs at four locations and has nearly 23,000 students.

“While we were dropping anywhere between 3 to 5% per year, once the pandemic hit, everybody dropped double digits every year,” Generals said.

“We have somewhat stabilized last year. I think we were down by 10 students, which was insignificant where our credit hours were up,” he said. “This spring, we are actually in terms of headcount, we’re up almost 5%.

“Our credit hours are also up. We haven’t returned to the numbers from 2019, but we’re optimistic that maybe we are beginning to see a little bit of a turnaround,” Generals added.

Community colleges are seeing signs of recovery after dramatic declines in enrollment over the pandemic.

Enrollment at community colleges in spring 2023 grew by 2.1% over the previous year, largely due to increases in spring freshmen and dual enrollment, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

However, enrollment at community colleges is still down 1.9% from spring 2021, according to the data.

“It’s encouraging to see this second straight year of growth in spring freshmen and dual-enrolled high school students,” Doug Shapiro, the executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, said in a statement.

“However, community colleges still face significant declines in adult learners, who have been opting out of college in larger numbers since the pandemic,” he said.

While Montgomery County Community College (MCCC) has seen a decline in student enrollment, the college had its largest graduating class last year.

MCCC is a public community college in Blue Bell, Montgomery County that offers more than 100 degree and certificate programs, and specialized workforce development and continuing education programs.

“Last year, the college had its largest graduating class with 1,606 graduates including 550 first-generation college graduates who collectively earned 1,664 degrees and certificates,” said Phil Needles, vice president of engagement and student experience at MCCC.

“These graduates persisted through the pandemic with the college’s online academic programs, talented faculty and support services,” he said. “In fall 2022, MCCC had 1,965 dual enrollment students, which was a 21.3% increase from fall 2021.”

Needles added that one of the reasons MCCC was able to persist through the pandemic was because of the support and resources the college offered its students.

“MCCC takes a holistic approach to education, ensuring that all students receive what they need to be successful through the intentional design of the college experience,” Needles said.

“To help students academically, MCCC provides free 24/7 online tutoring, as well as in-person tutoring on our campuses,” he said. “When the pandemic started in 2020, it amplified the urgency to provide services for mental and physical well-being as well as essential needs, like food, housing and transportation.

“MCCC took action by providing free, 24/7 tele-health services and creating a student emergency fund. The college also partnered with Benefits Data Trust, a national nonprofit organization to connect students with services for essential needs,” he added.

Generals said in the future, CCP will be putting more focus on career and technical training.

“We realize that not everyone needs or may even be interested in a college degree so we’re putting more of an emphasis on career and technical training and certificates,” he said.

“We’re trying to move into that space where we can help students find job training, obtain short term certificates and go on to the job market almost immediately without going through a two or three year college associate’s degree,” Generals said.

“We just built and opened a brand new center in West Philadelphia that is 70,000 square feet of high tech, and advanced career technology programs,” he added. “That’s the space and the areas in which we hope to be able to build upon over the next five to 10 years.”

Chanel Hill is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared

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