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Colleges feel COVID's effects

July 3, 2020 by Zoe Nicholson | Greenville News | 2020news

Area colleges feel effects of COVID
Students face different scenarios upon return this fall.

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His senior year, Greer High student Brody Young had to decide where he wanted to start his college career.

"I really wanted to go to this one school I got accepted into, but it was just so expensive. I started looking at other options," Young said.

Then, from March to May – a popular time for seniors to pick their college ahead of National College Decision Day – Young's classes were moved online, millions of people lost their jobs and universities were faced with hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue, all due to the coronavirus.

Young decided to attend Greenville Technical College, which has committed to resuming in-person classes in August.

"The pandemic hit and everything started rising in price, I just decided that the best course of action is to go there for cheap."

Young is part of a large group of American college students expected to change their academic plans due to the virus; A May survey from research company Strada Education Network found that 34% of students will change their study plans in the wake of the pandemic.

"I think a lot of people are doing the tech route and then transferring," Young said.

Students at community colleges and two-year schools can take general education requirements like math and English before transferring to four-year universities for more advanced degree courses, which can save thousands in tuition and housing costs.

Fall enrollment clouded in uncertainty

As four-year colleges project wildly different enrollment numbers for the fall semester – Clemson is looking at 2% growth while the University of South Carolina may see up to a 10% decline – community colleges are unsure.

What will colleges do in the Fall?:Here's what USC, Clemson, Greenville Tech are planning

"It's such a tricky question to answer right now," said Matteel Knowles, Vice President for Student Services at Greenville Technical College.

Knowles said the college won't accurately know its enrollment until September or October, but enrollment trends are tracking down this year compared to this time last year.

"But a lot of it is, I think, uncertainty. People just aren't sure what's going to be happening," Knowles said.

As of June 29, Greenville Tech is anticipating to enroll the same number of students in the fall as last year, about 11,000, according to Becky Mann, Institutional & Executive Public Relations at the college.

Mann said enrollment will pick up after the July 4 holiday as academic offices begin to reopen for the year.

"While we are currently trending down in new and returning enrollments for fall, we feel confident that we will bounce back as offices on campus are beginning to reopen," she said.

At nearby Tri-County Technical College, officials are anticipating a decline in enrollment of less than 1% – which is about 600 students, according to 2019 enrollment data.

The school plans to fully reopen its campuses before the start of its fall semester, according to its three-phased reopening plan.

At Spartanburg Community College, President Henry Giles said fall enrollment "has a big question mark over it."

While the school is tracking a less than 1% decline from their 2019 fall enrollment of 4,600 students, Giles said up to a 10% increase in coming semesters due to the economic problems wrought by the virus would not be surprising.

Like the Great Recession – which gave Spartanburg Community College a 22% enrollment boost in 2009 – Giles said the economy will drive more adults and students to two-year schools.

"So we could see an enrollment increase from the fact that the value of our education compared to the expense of some of the other institutions, the fall will be in a distant-learning mode with your classes. And you can get the same English and math and psychology credits in the first two years," GIles said. Spartanburg will resume in-person classes in the fall, as well as offering all-online and hybrid-model courses.

While some SC colleges will see in-person fall classes, K-12 future is uncertain
What will colleges do in the Fall? Here's what USC, Clemson, Greenville Tech are planning
After coronavirus shutters schools, Upstate parents struggle to find the new normal

National research suggests community colleges will see an increase in enrollment due to the virus, particularly if four-year institutions stay online through the next school year.

"You're going to stick home and take online courses might as well go to the community college because you know they've been teaching online for a long time," said John Fink, a Senior Research Associate at Columbia University's Community College Research Center in New York City.

Community colleges adjust to student needs

Knowles said she believes the pandemic is making students hesitant to enroll in classes, leading to a later-than-usual enrollment spike at community colleges. For Greenville Tech, classes begin August 26.

The hesitation could also be due to questions around what K-12 school districts will decide, Knowles added.

"So a lot of our students are parents or are caretakers of older parents. And so there's so much uncertainty right now in terms of, if they're going to have people at home with them," she said. South Carolina public schools have yet to announce their plans for the fall semester.

Because Greenville Tech's average student is between 26 and 27 years old and not the typical college student, Knowles said the school is ready to adjust to meet changing needs.

"We don't take a cookie-cutter approach to support our students, especially as an open enrollment institution, as pretty much all public community and technical colleges are," Knowles said.

The school, like many across the country, learned to meet those changing needs during the Great Recession of 2008, when enrollment spiked at two-year and community colleges increased due to adults returning for specialized degrees.

"The past 10 years community colleges... have really focused on increasing student success and increasing completion rates and reducing gaps between different populations of students of color, white students," Fink, the researcher, said.

Because of this decade of reform, community colleges are in a good position to adapt, he said.

"Back in the 2008 recession, we learned how to assess students' needs earlier and connect them with services and support early on," Knowles said of Greenville Tech.

And this year, Knowles said the school is working on a number of ways to address needs this fall, including expanding online course offerings and making counseling services more widely available.

"The biggest thing is making sure we not only offer our teaching in different modalities but to meet all of the other holistic needs that our students are going to have, especially at a time where they might have a lot of extra stressors in their lives."