Community colleges reap enrollment gains as coronavirus forces students to reconsider plans

WASHINGTON, N.C. — As the COVID-19 pandemic devastates the nation’s economy, some students like Shailyn Hall are thinking twice about how much to spend on higher education.

Hall, who for the last two years has studied social work at Delaware Technical Community College, planned to transfer to a four-year university in the fall. But that was before the pandemic sent the nation spiraling into a financial crisis.

Drawn by lower tuition, she plans to continue her studies at Del Tech instead.

“It definitely has affected my decision on going back to community college,” she said. “I don’t have the money to pay for a university at the moment and neither does my parents.”

Shailyn Hall with her family at her high school graduation in 2018. (Courtesy Shailyn Hall)

A North Carolina native, Hall moved to Delaware to attend college. She still plans to transfer to a university one day, with hopes of becoming a social worker in a hospital unit that specializes in intensive care for newborns.

Administrators at Del Tech said it’s too early to say how enrollment will be affected by COVID-19, but Justina Sapna, the vice president for academic affairs, recalled seeing a similar spike in enrollment during the economic crisis of the late 2000s that devastated cities across the nation.

“Students and parents are still trying to wrestle with the decision of what to do for the fall semester,” Sapna said.

According to U.S. Census data, enrollment at community colleges surged by 33% at the time. Sapna said the pandemic’s impact on enrollment at Del Tech has been “that, on steroids.”

The Latino Reporter asked Del Tech for enrollment data, but the school declined to release it because numbers fluctuate up until the first week of classes, which starts Aug. 31.

A full-time, in-state student in Delaware could potentially save up to nearly $2,000 per semester if enrolled in a community college rather than a university. In-state tuition at Delaware State University is $4,600 per semester and at $2,500 per semester at Del Tech.

The difference is even higher for out-of-state students like Hall, who could pay up to $9,500 per semester at a university, compared with $5,900 at a community college.

Still, some students are bucking the trend, even amid unprecedented uncertainty.

David Urbina, a recent high school graduate of West Caldwell High School in Lenoir, N.C., received a full-ride scholarship to DSU through TheDream.US, an organization that provides scholarship for undocumented students. He decided to enroll and major in psychology.

“I had the opportunity to go out-of-state,” Urbina said. “So I have no other choice but to go.”

David Urbina and his family at his high school graduation party. (Courtesy David Urbina)

In response to the pandemic, DSU announced a hybrid course delivery plan to offer 85 percent of classes online with a few courses taught in person, such as laboratory and research-based classes. The university also announced that only 75 percent of on-campus residential housing will be available.

Although community colleges are reaping some benefits, experts anticipate that the pandemic’s economic impact on higher education institutions will overall be damaging across the country. Credit rating agency Fitch Ratings, estimates that the pandemic will cause a 5 percent to 20 percent decline in enrollment overall for colleges and universities during the fall 2020 semester.

So far, DSU’s Associate Director of Admissions Pia Stokes says she has noticed a very small decrease of incoming freshmen compared to fall 2019.

“In general, university enrollment is down with the pandemic,” Stokes said. “A lot of students, parents and families are nervous, they’re scared, they don’t know what to expect.”

Eddi Cabrera Blanco is a recent college graduate from Delaware State University. He is a bilingual journalist pursuing a career in television news. Currently, he is an urban affairs fellow at Next City, an online solutions-driven journalism magazine. Reach him at and on Twitter @eddicblanco.

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