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College enrollment drops 16% this fall amid COVID-19: RPT

Martha Parham, Senior Vice President in Public Relations of the American Association of Community Colleges , joins Yahoo Finance’s Zack Guzman to discuss how coronavirus is impacting higher education, college enrollment.

Video Transcript

ZACK GUZMAN: Colleges are grappling with more and more students not wanting to go back to campus or, in a lot of cases, not even getting invited back to campus. As we showed, data earlier out this month showed a striking drop in terms of first-time students enrolling. They're the largest decline amongst all the student groups there from last year, down 16.1% nationwide.

And it might be because costs aren't coming down as more and more classes move to the virtual format as well. Here to discuss all those things with us on the college front is Martha Parham, Senior Vice President in Public Relations for the American Association of Community Colleges. And, Martha, I appreciate you coming on. I mean, when we look at it, I know that there's a lot to discuss in terms of students trying to weigh the pro/con of doing this in a virtual format, but what are you seeing play out? Because I know you were looking at transfer students as well, which might be a pretty big piece of the puzzle. So talk to me about what you're seeing.

MARTHA PARHAM: Well, we're seeing, you know, transfers from community colleges to four-year universities has increased. It's probably the only number that's increased for community colleges this semester. But it's a good trend as we're seeing students succeed with their transfer pathways.

Enrollments, as you have already reported, are down. We estimate, based upon the National Student Clearinghouse data, that about 600,000 students are not attending community colleges this year, and that would be the first time, so freshmen students. So that's pretty big impact to enrollments, and more importantly, to students that are not able to take advantage of pathways that will get them back to work and advance in what they want to do.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, the transfer piece of that's interesting to see if they're going away from community colleges because pricing has been a key element. We've discussed this on the show, debated it, and I know a lot of people are angry about the idea that costs wouldn't be coming down.

The College Board just released its annual Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid report yesterday which showed that colleges increased their cost at the lowest rate in decades this past year. But a lot of people will be saying, look, it's not good enough. Costs should be coming down because I'm just basically on a Zoom call. So how does that factor into this?

MARTHA PARHAM: Well, for community colleges it's all relative, right? Community colleges are about a third of the cost of an in-state four-year university. So not a private, not an Ivy, but you're talking, you know, in-state four-year university. The average annual cost for community colleges is about $3,700, and that same cost for an in-state four-year university is $10,440. So those numbers have increased slightly, but still, community colleges are still the best value in town.

What's interesting is as all colleges-- community, university, whatever-- have moved to this online format, we're hearing from students that it's not really about cost. It's not really about the classes themselves. Students want that in-person, one-on-one teacher face-to-face scenario, and they can't have it right now.

So despite the fact that community colleges have really done an amazing job of moving everything to this online virtual format, it's not something that students are interested at the community-college level.

And so that's really what we're hearing from those that have been talking directly to students, but certainly costs are an issue. Community-college students, the most first generation, low income, minorities mostly attend community colleges, and these are the students that may have lost their job. They've been unduly impacted to a much further degree than others by the COVID pandemic.

So it may be that they're choosing between food on the table and a class. So that's really not a choice if you're looking to feed your kids.

ZACK GUZMAN: Yeah, and I think that that was a big piece as to why we saw upper class-- when we talk about postgraduate students there increasing. One of the few places we saw enrollment actually go up was maybe some of those people who had more money at their disposal to put towards education.

But very interesting to see how this all playing out, and I'm glad you mentioned community college is good bang for the buck. I saw that completely, transfer students to graduate from some of these bigger schools but starting out at the community level. But I appreciate you joining us to break all that down.