As students head back to school for the fall, administrators at Hispanic-serving community colleges across the nation say they are more optimistic about student enrollment numbers, particularly compared to last year, at the height of the pandemic.
"We’re showing right now that we’re about 13 percent ahead of last fall, and I’m real pleased to see that," William Serrata, president of El Paso Community College in Texas, told NBC News. "We could be potentially passing last year’s enrollment numbers."
As with other higher education institutions, EPCC changed its procedures to address greater flexibility during the pandemic, allowing registration up to the first week of the semester, which started this week. Of its more than 30,000 students, 85 percent are Latino.
"We’re slowly but surely getting there, and that to me shows that we are heading in the right direction. Although, I don’t expect to fully reach that until the delta variant is under control," said Serrata, a board member of the American Association of Community Colleges.
EPCC took steps to register and retain students to stem pandemic-related drops, with faculty and administrators calling close to 17,000 current and prospective students, Serrata said. They offered a range of assistance, including reminding them of deadlines, helping them fill out financial aid documents and directing them to tutoring or mental health services. The college has offered hot spots, computer software and, in some cases, laptops.
It has also used federal funds to waive student debt from March 2020 to the present, representing about $4.2 million.
"This has allowed students to start fresh, and we’re pleased that the Biden administration has allowed us to use federal dollars for this," Serrata said. "El Paso has received about $120 million in federal aid, of which $70 million is for students. We’re making sure that students have access to these resources."
In Florida, Miami Dade College is touting its rolling admissions, mini semesters and rolling start dates, offering the kind of flexibility students want, according to college President Madeline Pumariega.
"We feel much better [than last fall]. I think we’ll see good enrollment numbers," Pumariega said.
MDC serves 120,000 students on eight campuses, and 74 percent of its students are Latino. In addition to the traditional two-year degrees, MDC offers certificates and what are called "workforce baccalaureates" — four-year degrees in highly sought-after fields, including nursing and IT.
Making pandemic lessons permanent
Miami Dade College made adjustments to ensure students wouldn't drop out during the pandemic — and they've proved to be successful and worth keeping.
"We’ve had in-person and online classes (where students work independently according to their own schedule), but in the spring we introduced MDC Live, which were classes live online," Pumariega said. The college also has MDC Blended, which is 80 percent in-person and 20 percent either live online or virtually on students' own schedules, as well as an option for independent study.
"That’s one thing that regardless of the pandemic students want to see us keep, that flexibility, those different modalities," Pumariega said. "It helps us stand out. Many of our students are first-time college students, and it’s important to keep them motivated and engaged and connected to the college."
At the height of the pandemic, MDC provided laptops for students who needed them, which it will continue to do in addition to continuing a variety of services that are now being provided virtually — including mental health, tutoring, academic advising and other support services.
Antonio Flores, president and CEO of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, said community colleges are an important piece of Latino student enrollment this fall, as more than half (52%) of all Latino college students are in community colleges.
"It was community colleges that saw the largest drop in enrollment — 13.2 percent this spring compared to spring of last year," Flores said, referring to freshman enrollment.
The delta variant certainly adds uncertainty, according to Latino educators. But Flores sees a better trend.
"Institutions are learning continuously how to better cope with the pandemic, and the investment the federal government has made in health funds to higher education and to students, all that accounts for better readiness for institutions and students in the fall," he said.
Félix Matos Rodríguez, chancellor of the City University of New York, is cautiously optimistic about fall semester enrollment. CUNY, the largest urban higher education system in the country, enrolls more than 275,000 students in 25 campuses throughout New York City, including seven community colleges. Close to a third of the students are Latino, and 40 percent of them come from low-income households. Overall, 60 percent of students are the first in their family to attend college, and 39 percent speak a language other than English.
Matos Rodríguez said though he was expecting lower enrollment this fall than pre-pandemic levels, the unprecedented period means "the usual projection models do not necessarily apply, and so we are optimistic that we will see a better-than-expected total when the final numbers are in."
As with other institutions, CUNY is offering a more flexible schedule than before the pandemic, with about 45 percent of the courses available in person and the rest online.
As part of its recruitment and retainment efforts to address drops in enrollment, CUNY is continuing with its College Bridge Program. In collaboration with the New York City Department of Education, the program supports graduating high schoolers as they transition to college.
"We assign them peer tutors from the CUNY schools that they can be in touch with and help them transition and meet with them and start classes, and for the CUNY student, it’s a paid internship," Matos Rodríguez said. "The data shows that Latino and African Americans, particularly male, are the demographic that seems to be disconnecting more with college, and our marketing campaign has been going on social media sites, communication sites, radio to connect with them — if they’re a student, to bring them back, and if they’re new, to recruit them. We’re pulling all the stops to come apply and stay."
In addition to federal funds it received, CUNY raised $10 million this year for student grants, especially to help those who don’t qualify for federal financial aid — such as students who lack legal citizenship status. They also used federal stimulus funds to forgive up to $125 million in student debt.
Institutions are also taking measures such as social distancing, extra cleaning and masks — and, in some cases like CUNY's, mandating Covid-19 vaccines or serving as vaccination sites — to help ensure a safe fall semester.
“We expect these precautions will have a reassuring effect on our students, many of whom reside in the communities that were impacted the most by the health and economic crisis,” Matos Rodríguez said.
Flores, of HACU, said colleges have learned as they've adjusted during the pandemic, and one key part of learning — online classes — will likely never fully go away.
"Even if institutions are going hybrid or even in person, I think that modality will continue to be used," Flores said. "We have learned over the last year and half how to better cope with challenges."