When Chelsea Anorma graduated from high school in 2009, she enrolled at Saddleback College, a community college in Southern California. It was there that she took her first class in chemistry. “I remember being enthralled by learning how the world worked and seeing fascinating chemistry demonstrations and experiments,” she said. “I immediately decided to major in chemistry.”
That set the tone for the rest of her educational career. She completed her associate’s degree and transferred to the University of California, Irvine. In spring 2020, she defended her doctoral dissertation in the chemistry program at the University of Illinois. “Saddleback is where I fell in love with science, thanks to some awesome professors who helped me not only in class but to get internships and scholarships so that I could transfer,” she said.
Anorma is just one of millions of students who start their education at one of the nearly 1,200 community colleges in the United States. In fact, 41% of all undergraduate students in the United States attend community college, which costs, on average, roughly half of what public four-year universities charge. Many of these undergraduates are underrepresented students, including the majority of all first-year minority students; students who are older than 25; low-income students; and part-time students. These schools are an affordable stepping-stone to further education and, importantly, an on-ramp to jobs that provide a living wage.
According to Davis Jenkins, a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Community College Research Center, community colleges provide important lower division education and advice for younger students on transferring and earning bachelor’s degrees. And they are poised to play an important role in offering the education and training necessary for the post pandemic recovery. “Community colleges will…provide short-term training to help unemployed workers get back in the workplace,” says Jenkins.
Filling a need
Since last March, more than 14 million people have filed for unemployment. The majority of those who dropped out of the labor market made less than $40,000 a year. Most job losses were in the service sector, followed by education and health services, with an overall unemployment rate of 6.7% at the end of 2020. The recession has negatively affected enrollment at community colleges, which normally goes up during an economic downturn as people seek new credentials and skills. That has not held true during the pandemic.
For fall 2020, while overall undergraduate enrollment was down around 3.6%, community colleges saw a drop of 10%, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The decline was particularly steep among first-time community college students, at 21% overall, with enrollment of first-time Black, Hispanic, and Native American students falling by nearly 30%.