During her first semester at Tarrant County College, Denice Murillo fell behind in her classes while caring for hospitalized family members.
Her second semester worsened when her grandfather died of COVID-19 and her father fell into an “almost depressive state.” Murillo, 19, failed two classes and dropped another that semester because of the emotional and physical stress she faced.
Like thousands of other recent high school graduates, she was forced to navigate the beginning of her college career amid complicated, stressful homelife situations and online learning modalities resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
For many students, the stress of the pandemic wasn’t worth staying in school. As a result, student enrollment in the Tarrant County College District declined 21% from fall 2019 to fall 2021, according to district enrollment history data.
TCC’s enrollment decline is nearly double the state average. Community college enrollment across Texas has declined about 11% during the pandemic, according to preliminary data from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.
It’s hard to determine why TCC’s enrollment decline is so much higher than the state average, according to David Ximenez, associate vice chancellor of Enrollment and Academic Support Services at TCC. However, a number of general factors contributed to the statewide decline and also affected TCC, he said.
Texas community colleges with the highest enrollment declines:
Western Texas College: 28.47%
Central Texas College: 26.51%
Tarrant County College District: 21.45%
Wharton County Junior College: 20.61%
Coastal Bend College: 19.99%
The single-biggest reason that prohibited many students from attending college was obviously the pandemic, Ximenez said. The uncertainty of what was happening in people’s personal lives combined with health risks and potential job insecurity, deterred many from staying in college during spring 2020 or enrolling in fall 2020.
“There’s just so much for students to have to adjust to, so much for students to have to pivot to,” Ximenez said.
Chris Fernandez, policy analysis director for the Texas Association of Community Colleges, said it’s common to see large fluctuations when looking at an average percentage. TCC District has the third-highest decline in enrollment among community colleges in Texas, with Western Texas College in Snyder at about 28.5% and Central Texas College in Killeen at about 26.5%. But enrollment at Ranger College in Ranger is down by less than 1.5%.
When looking at the decline, it’s important to think of the socioeconomic challenges that the average community college student has to face even during a non-pandemic time, Ximenez said.
Most often, community college students come from lower-income families than those who start immediately at a university. And sometimes, those students are tasked with taking care of young or old family members or working full-time jobs to contribute to the family income. Combine those factors with a global health crisis, and it makes sense that community college enrollment is suffering more than university enrollment, Ximenez said.
For Murillo, the stress of caring for her family made attending college as a first-generation student in the middle of a global pandemic even more difficult.
“I fell behind on a lot of my classes because of just the stress, the amount of stress that I had,” she said.
But she decided to persevere rather than take a break. She was able to retake and pass the failed classes during the summer, and now she’s finishing her core classes before transferring to the University of Texas at Arlington.
“I didn’t want to take a semester off because I feel like I wouldn’t have gone back,” Murillo said. “I know a lot of people who take a gap year just don’t go back to school, and I didn’t want to do that.”
“I didn’t want to take a semester off because I feel like I wouldn’t have gone back.”TCC student Denice Murillo
Across Texas, public university enrollment increased almost 2% during the pandemic. According to Ximenez, that could be because university students are often more socioeconomically advantaged.
Another possible factor for the community college enrollment decline is the job market. Ximenez said it’s easy for traditionally college aged students to get hired within a week of looking for a job.
“That has been probably too tempting for some students. Maybe a little less risky or a little safer for them to deal with than getting back on to a campus with thousands of students or doing a virtual higher education setting,” he said.
With this high of a decline, the district lost students at all academic levels, he said.
First-time college students like Murillo are declining at a higher rate than the overall population of students at TCC. Dual credit enrollment went up a couple percentage points from fall 2019 to fall 2020 but dropped about 14.5% by fall 2021.
However, enrollment at TCC Connect, the district’s pre-existing virtual campus, has increased by over 1,700 students since fall 2019, according to enrollment data. With COVID-19 cases and mask mandates, virtual learning provided a convenient option to continue learning for many students.
The district underestimated the demand for virtual classes when it transitioned back to dominantly in-person classes this semester, Ximenez said. Now, the district is exploring options for providing more virtual options in the upcoming spring semester with the hope that that helps bring enrollment back up.
The primary option TCC uses to survey students is through a survey every semester by the Institutional Research Department. Other departments such as the Admissions Office and Financial Aid Department sometimes seek out feedback. Students also can provide feedback during academic advising sessions.
It could take several semesters of in-person learning to return to pre-pandemic enrollment numbers, Ximenez said. It’s too early to cast concrete projections, though, as the pandemic is still evolving, he said.
After the Great Recession of 2008, it took about 18 months for college enrollment to surge upward again, Fernandez said. But this pandemic decline could take much longer for enrollment to recover, he said, with employment opportunities widely available and the pandemic still in motion.
In the meantime, TCC is trying to promote itself as much as possible, Ximenez said. From emails and text messages to letters and postcards in the mail, the district is trying to reach as many potential students as it can. It has started an advertising campaign with some radio segments, billboard notices and newspaper advertisements.
Community colleges should also target high school students and try to increase dual credit enrollment to get those high-schoolers on the path to college as early as possible, Fernandez said.
Community colleges are already about as open-access as they can be, but there’s always room for improvement, Fernandez said. He suggested that community colleges reevaluate their admissions process to make it as smooth as possible.
He said many campuses are also promoting enrollment with a free first semester to select students. In recent years, several colleges have also started emergency aid programs that help provide funding to students in need.
Declining enrollment also means a tighter budget for community colleges. Community college funding comes from three main sources of revenue: tuition and fees, property taxes and state appropriations.
Last session, the state Legislature appropriated about $1.8 billion to community colleges, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. The state has a formula that calculates what percentage of the appropriation that each community college receives, Fernandez said.
A major factor that determines that distribution percentage is enrollment, or contact hours, Fernandez said.
Plus, fewer paying students naturally means less tuition revenue, he said. Colleges with larger enrollment declines like TCC will face greater revenue declines.
But aside from funding, Ximenez said, it’s concerning how many students will never achieve a higher education degree. About 10,000 students just from the TCC district missed out on the opportunity to get a degree and increase their chances for high-paying jobs in the future.
“We run the risk of our overall population not having the education that they need to have a successful future,” Ximenez said.
He pointed out statistics that show that workers with a college degree are more likely to earn more money than those without a degree. Workers with a bachelor’s degree annually earn about $32,000 more than workers whose highest degree is a high school diploma, according to the Association of Public Land-Grant Universities.
“If these students who have decided not to enroll this current semester or during this pandemic, if they never get themselves back into higher education, then I worry for their futures,” Ximenez said.
“If they never get themselves back into higher education, then I worry for their futures.”David Ximenez, associate vice chancellor of Enrollment and Academic Support Services at TCC
Potential students should decide for themselves if college is the right fit for them, even with the incentive of potential higher pay, Murillo said.
Her parents never pushed her to attend college because they don’t think school is for everybody, she said. Murillo has adopted a similar mindset.
Many people still can’t get a high-paying job even after graduating college, or maybe they don’t even have a good experience at college because they’re not interested in it, she said.
Several of Murillo’s friends haven’t gone to college at all, but they’re doing great in full-time jobs that make them happy, she said.
For Murillo and her interest in becoming a nurse, pursuing a degree was worthwhile despite the extra challenges.
Fort Worth Report fellow Cecilia Lenzen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.