TALLAHASSEE - Reversing historical trends during economic downturns, state college enrollment has dropped dramatically as the coronavirus pandemic continues to plague Florida.
Student enrollment is down between 5 and 10 percent at most of Florida’s 28 state colleges, according to St. Johns River State College President Joe Pickens, who serves as chairman of the college system’s Council of Presidents.
The biggest drop is among first-time college students who have recently graduated from high school, Pickens, a former state legislator, told The News Service of Florida.
College campuses were largely shuttered following a statewide shutdown ordered by Gov. Ron DeSantis in March to prevent the spread of the virus. The schools are now offering a mix of online and in-person classes.
Pickens’ college, which has campuses in Orange Park, Palatka and St. Augustine, has experienced a 6.3 percent decline in students, including a 3 percent decline in fee-paying students, he said. The difference between overall and fee-paying student enrollment is due to high school students who sign up for college classes, a process known as “dual enrollment.” Dual-enrollment students don’t pay for the college classes.
Florida’s enrollment numbers track closely to a national trend, according to a survey by the National Student Clearinghouse. The survey, released in October, found that undergraduate enrollment nationwide had dropped by more than 4 percent in the fall semester, compared to last year. State colleges were hit the hardest, with a decrease of 9.4 percent, the survey found.
The October survey also showed a 22.7 percent drop in the number of freshmen at community colleges, which are called state colleges in Florida, compared to pre-pandemic enrollment.
The striking drop in first-time college students is disconcerting for Pickens.
“We’re worried that they are just opting out of a lot of things right now, and that’s worrisome (for) when they come back to us --- and hopefully they will --- and try to catch up,” he said.
Many people predicted that the coronavirus pandemic and the economic fallout would create a surge in state college enrollment, because colleges are a more affordable and closer alternative than universities for many students, as occurred during the recession from 2007 to 2009.
“But we’re not seeing that at all. In fact, we’re seeing dramatic declines in enrollment,” Martha Parham, a senior vice president and spokeswoman for the American Association of Community Colleges, told the News Service.
State college students are a little older than university students, the majority of them work, and about 15 percent are single parents, according to Parham.
While there’s no data available yet to explain the drop in college students, experts like Parham offer a litany of reasons.
Many older students who haven’t lost their jobs might be juggling work from home and tending to schoolchildren engaged in distance learning, while struggling to make ends meet. Out-of-work students might not be able to afford tuition and fees.
Having numerous members of a household working or taking classes online can create broadband issues. Some older students aren’t as comfortable with virtual instruction. Students might be waiting on the sidelines rather than risking being exposed to the highly contagious virus and infecting family members.
“It’s a very complex issue. There’s no one solution,” Parham said.
When the pandemic hit Florida during the spring semester, Pickens said his school was offering about 60 percent of its classes in person and 40 percent online.
“That was a pretty normal mix for us,” he said.
Pickens’ college shifted to 100 percent online instruction after the March shutdown. About 90 percent of classes were conducted online over the summer, and around 87 percent of classes are being held online this fall.
Pickens said his goal is to have 65 percent of classes online and about 35 percent in person for the 2021 spring semester.
One reason for the flip in instruction method is space: Because of social distancing requirements, fewer students can fit into classrooms.
The switch to a majority of online classes is also due to “student demand,” Pickens said.
Administrators’ experiences adapting to the pandemic could result in permanent changes at colleges, which had a statewide total of about 315,000 students during the fiscal year that ended June 30.
For example, Pickens said college instructors saw a significant uptick in students’ use of office hours after they were made available online.
Colleges have been “nimble” in their response to the coronavirus, said Polk State College President Angela Garcia-Falconetti, vice chairwoman of the College of Presidents.
Colleges used money from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act to assist students with emergency funding, she said. Colleges are also offering 20-week rapid credentialing programs aimed at boosting the state workforce, which took a major hit when businesses were shuttered this year.
State economists, meanwhile, are predicting a snapback in college enrollment after a vaccine for COVID-19 becomes available. In August, a panel of economists predicted a 2.4 percent increase in enrollment for the fiscal year that begins in July 2021 and a flattening of enrollment in the following two years.
Training and credentialing programs offered at state colleges are a key element to getting Florida’s economy back on track, Garcia-Falconetti said, and administrators are finding ways to engage students in workforce development efforts.
“This is not the day to do business the way we did it in the past. This is a day to think outside the box. No one has been given a script to learn how to deal with a pandemic,” she told the News Service. “So it is our day to look at how the Florida college system and our colleges operate and how we can do things differently to serve our students and help raise the level of our economic status of the state.”
Students taking online classes “by necessity rather than choice” need support, Pickens found. His school has increased students’ remote access to ancillary services, such as tutoring, he said.
“Academic support services is the number one thing that students say they need help with in navigating their classes that are online but that might not have been their first choice,” Pickens said.
But academic and technical support aren’t the only kind of aid students are seeking amid a pandemic, Garcia-Falconetti learned when she asked students what Polk State College could do to help them.
“The interesting part was the answer was not about the quality of the instruction, even when we moved most everything online initially,” she said. “The answer was, ‘These are very isolating times, these are lonely times.’”
Students suggested the school could provide online sessions with counselors so they could “talk to someone about how to deal with these feelings and these emotions,” Garcia-Falconetti said.
“So, I want to underscore the importance of mental health counseling and services,” she added.