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Why Community Colleges Struggle to Attract First-Generation Students

It’s no secret that community colleges have suffered, and the past year and a half is no exception.

Once seen as a safe, cost-effective way to earn an education, students no longer view community college as a vocational launchpad like they have in the past. Despite the promise of providing accessible and equitable education to all regardless of gender, age, race or life circumstance, many students don’t feel as comfortable attending community college as they have in the past.

Students are anxious about the prospect of community college. They see it as a hindrance to their otherwise busy schedule working multiple jobs or raising kids, and don’t have the time for commuting to-and-from their local college.

And considering that first-generation students make up a large portion of prospective applicants, there are several barriers that deter them from enrolling, whether that be a lack of Wi-Fi, familial support or website content in their native language.

Today, we released a whitepaper that explains why community colleges struggle to attract first-generation students, shifting dynamics in the two-year college ecosystem that may drive more attendance and how they can ultimately support student success while scaling their operations.

The State of Community Colleges

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced higher education institutions to re-think everything when it comes to proving the value of a college degree. For the first time, students were forced to embrace remote learning, and some reckoned with the value of going to college at all.

Community college is no exception. First generation college students are ambivalent about the value community college can provide compared to vocational schools, or other types of education that can get them in the workforce faster. They are also frustrated by the amount of paperwork and processes involved just to apply to college. Unlike students at public and private four-year institutions, many community college students are left on their own to get the support they need.

Of course, that problem is exacerbated even further due to common accessibility barriers such as distance or being a non-native English speaker. Students not only struggle to apply because they want someone who speaks their language, but they also need help understanding the FAFSA, enrolling in classes, and ultimately staying engaged.

Whether the student is attending for an Associate’s Degree, taking a few classes to sharpen their skills or getting a certificate, community college administrators need to do more to provide sufficient support for these students than they would at a four-year institution.

Since community college is meant to be affordable, profitability is at a minimum. Presidents don’t have the budget to buy state-of-the-art resources or hire a big staff like many four institutions do. This leaves colleges with overburdened staff jumping from one fire drill to the next.

Students suffer as well. Community college students have unfortunately dealt with long wait times or a lack of availability to important questions that can make or break their experience. When it comes to customer service, community colleges simply don’t have the bandwidth to help students in a meaningful way, at times leading to summer melt or simply failing to complete the enrollment process.

This is all coming at a time when community college enrollment dropped 21 percent in 2020, with an even steeper decline among African American, Hispanic and Native American students. While recessions have typically led to students flocking to community colleges in order to pick up skills when the market is bad, COVID-19 made remote instruction a barrier too high for most students. Furthermore, even if students wanted to enroll in at a two-year institution, the website can at times be so difficult to navigate that they are unable to complete the necessary requirements on a mobile device.

If community colleges are to thrive in the coming years, they must be accessible and affordable to all students – especially when many of the students lack things as simple as laptops and Wi-Fi at home.

But there is some good news. It’s clear that community college is the key to creating more equity around higher education. As a result, the federal and state governments are looking to provide enough funding to make community college free. This shift could dramatically boost the dire financial situation at many institutions, but create their own challenges as well.

As chatbots continue to permeate the way society operates, there will be greater expectations for institutions to adapt accordingly. Those who don’t, will ultimately be left behind. Due to the changing landscape of higher education, community colleges have the most to gain by embracing chatbots.

While enrollment at community colleges is suffering, administrators can help reverse that trend by embracing digital transformation. With a massive influx of capital and groundbreaking technology available, there’s never been a better time to take advantage of all that chatbots have to offer.

Read our whitepaper to learn how community colleges can help first-generation students.