“The Economy Shouldn’t Be a Barrier”: Community Colleges Use Federal Funds to Attract and Retain Students
“It really helped me focus on my studies,” she said, adding that having her own apartment has also enabled her to better fulfill her role as the new president of the college student council. “It really made me want to be in North Essex even more.”
In part to stem a long-term decline in enrollment exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, community colleges statewide are providing expanded financial and other support to help attract and retain students.
The additional help was made possible by an injection of federal emergency funds that colleges received during the pandemic to help students cover their tuition fees and cover their own operating expenses.
These funds – along with the partial return of in-person classes – have given some officials and students hope that life is starting to return to normal in community colleges.
“We’re really excited to have increased activity on campus after 20 months of COVID-19,” said Phil Sisson, president of Middlesex Community College, which has campuses in Bedford and Lowell.
“Things are going pretty well. I think the college stays really focused on communicating with students, making sure all of their needs are met, ”said Amara Bangura, a student at Massasoit Community College, which has offices in Brockton, Canton and Middleborough.
Alieza Inam, another student at Massasoit, is also happy to have at least some on-campus experience this semester. Sharon’s resident, who is pursuing an associate’s degree in biology, visits the Massasoit campus in Brockton once a week for a lab session.
“I’m delighted to be there in person,” said Inam, who enrolled at Massasoit at the end of 2020 and had no face-to-face classes so far. “I really like being able to meet people. Being online makes it hard to make friends. And I feel like I’m getting to know the college.
Like other institutions of higher education in New England, community colleges have seen their student numbers drop in recent years in part because of population stagnation, according to Nate Mackinnon, executive director of the Massachusetts Association. of Community Colleges. This decline was accentuated last year when colleges had to switch to almost entirely virtual education.
“This fall we are in a better position as we are able to offer a number of in-person classes,” said Mackinnon, who estimated that among the state’s 15 community colleges, the proportion of classes taught on campus ranges from 20 to 50 percent.
He added that the expanded help colleges provide to students is also having an impact. “Without federal resources, registrations would be much worse than they are now. “
As another step in promoting a return to normalcy on campuses, community college presidents recently announced that students, faculty and staff at all colleges must be fully immunized by January.
“Maintaining a safe and healthy learning environment in our colleges is paramount,” said Mackinnon.
Community colleges offer a range of options, from two-year associate’s degrees that some students extend over a longer period of time, to certificate programs of one year or less in duration to workforce training. of uncredited work.
Ray DiPasquale, president of Massasoit Community College, said community colleges have long been a vital part of the higher education system, in part because of their affordability. Last year, tuition and compulsory fees at community colleges averaged $ 6,778, compared to $ 11,149 at state universities and $ 15,699 at University of Massachusetts schools. .
But they now play “an equally important role in helping students in any way possible to continue their education despite the challenges of the pandemic,” he said.
Mendoza said North Essex also paid for an exam she took which earned her the necessary credits to graduate at the end of that semester – saving her money – And provided him with free tutoring and advice,
“They really gave me a lot of opportunities,” said the former amateur boxer, whose career goal is to work for an organization that helps people released from prison get back into society.
“Historically, community colleges have always been ready to answer the call of our communities whenever there is a need,” said Jennifer V. Mezquita, vice president of student affairs at Northern Essex, which has campus at Haverhill and Lawrence.
She said colleges have done it again during the pandemic by moving towards online learning without sacrificing the close interactions with faculty members that students have long enjoyed. She said increased student aid is also part of that response.
Mezquita said North Essex provides students with money to cover costs – from accommodation to transportation and childcare – that might otherwise keep them from going to college, drawing on the federal funds he received for this purpose.
She said the college also allocated some of the federal money it received for its own operating expenses to clear some of its students’ debt for tuition and tuition fees. Another aid has been to help students buy laptops and subsidize the cost of exams to earn credits.
North Essex has also accelerated adoption of a “case management” system to provide prospective and enrolled students the personal attention they need, Mezquita said, noting that the pandemic has “put in evidence ”the value of this individual assistance.
Mezquita credits increased student support for a slight increase in enrollment in North Essex this year – from 4,700 students to around 4,800.
This summer, Middlesex Community College also used federal money to write off student debt owed to the institution, an initiative that has saved an average of 2,800 students an average of $ 1,500 in tuition and fees. since the start of the pandemic.
“We wanted to make sure we were doing as much as possible to keep students on the path to education,” Sisson said.
He said the college also provided students with emergency funds for housing and other costs, and offered them “robust” virtual academic advice, counseling and other services. An expanded in-person activity is also important for many students, he said.
Sisson said Middlesex Community College is still forecasting a slight drop in enrollment, but the debt relief initiative, in particular, will help keep it from being even steeper. “A number of students have told us that they are extremely grateful that they don’t have this debt hanging over their heads. “
Daniella Dankwa, a resident of Lowell and originally from Ghana who is working on an associate’s degree in nursing in Middlesex, said she was given the opportunity to get free food from a college pantry and funds that she had received to help cover her expenses.
“They provide a lot of student support services. It’s very helpful, ”said Dankwa, a former Middlesex student administrator. “They get in touch with you to make sure you’re on the right track and provide tutoring assistance.”
Massasoit Community College provided tuition and debt relief to approximately 1,500 returning students this fall, loaned laptops to 292 students, and offered funding for other expenses. Staff have also stepped up efforts to help students with their academic needs and assist prospective students with the admissions process.
“We have tried to become a valuable resource for students in every way possible,” said DiPasquale.
Massasoit’s registrations are expected to drop about 7 percent this year, continuing the downward trend of recent years, according to DiPasquale. But with the college’s supportive efforts, he hopes enrollment starts to pick up.
Bangura, who specializes in media communications, received funding from the college that he mainly used to access textbooks online, as well as virtual tutoring support that helped him complete a course.
“I am extremely happy with the way the college responds to the needs of the students,” said the native of Sierra Leone, who as the “presidential student ambassador” is himself an information resource on Massasoit for current and future students.
“Our message to students is that we are open for business,” DePasquale said, “and the economy shouldn’t be a barrier. Our goal is to help you achieve your education, make your dreams come true.
John Laidler can be reached at [email protected].