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Community colleges see significant drop in enrollment during pandemic

Across the Minnesota State system, enrollment at community and technical colleges dropped more than 6 percent in 2021.

COON RAPIDS, Minn. — Lydia Wilson first arrived at Anoka-Ramsey Community College in 2019, months before COVID-19 upended higher education.

She offers a unique perspective, from the standpoint of a student who attended classes before and after the pandemic started.

"The college has been very quiet. Usually, it's hustle-and-bustle — a meeting place for a lot of different people," said Wilson, who also runs a club on campus. "It's hard to get people to come. Sometimes, they don't want to come with COVID, or they're just not used to coming to the college because they're taking online classes from farther away."

Indeed, enrollment at community colleges like Anoka-Ramsey has continued to tumble into 2021.

According to headcount data provided by the Minnesota State System, Anoka-Ramsey is down 628 students compared to last year, representing a 7.4-percent drop. Three schools — Lake Superior College, Saint Paul College and Riverland Community College — have experienced decreases of more than 10 percent.

Overall, enrollment at Minnesota State community colleges has dropped 6.4 percent from fall 2020 to fall 2021, mirroring trends nationwide. While the National Student Clearinghouse reports a 0.6-percent drop in four-year enrollment across the U.S. this year, the nonprofit estimates that two-year community and technical colleges have fallen by 9.5 percent.

And whenever enrollment drops, so does tuition revenue.

Mike Dean, executive director of the group LeadMN that represents 100,000 community and technical college students in Minnesota, said the decreased enrollment has "just had a huge negative impact on the bottom line of colleges."

"Unfortunately, we've really seen a perfect storm, where the pandemic and the high cost of college is dragging down enrollment," Dean said. "What it really means is the impact on the skills gap that we're facing. A lot of employers right now are looking to hire people. There are plenty of people out there to work, but the issue is there's this gap between the skills that are needed for those jobs and people who don't have those skills."

Community college enrollment had already started to decline in Minnesota before the pandemic, according to the state's Office of Higher Education, but the onset of COVID exacerbated the situation.

"The pandemic has made it very challenging because it has created a lot of uncertainty about how students learn," Dean said. "Imagine taking a math class in an online environment. Students just hate it. And so, I think that has really forced a lot of people out of community colleges."

Dean applauded a recent announcement by the Walz administration, which is pledging to spend $35 million in American Rescue Plan funds to cover two- and four-year tuition for students entering critical fields. Those include health care, STEM, education, police and fire, and many other categories.

"We think that program in particular is going to be critical for making college affordable," Dean said. "But also, long-term, we need to see more of an investment in our community colleges. I think, for way too long, community colleges have been underinvested in the state of Minnesota."

Once she earns her associate's degree from Anoka-Ramsey Community College, Lydia Wilson plans to enroll at the University of North Dakota to major in commercial aviation.

She just has less company on campus during her final semester.

"For sure," Wilson said. "A lot of my friends, they aren't enrolled this year."