Nassau and Suffolk community colleges have seen a vastly greater downturn in enrollment than local four-year colleges over the past year, compounding a decade of losses in their attendance, school officials said.

The enrollment losses have been straining these schools’ finances, thwarting people’s ability to reach their chosen career, and potentially hampering the Island’s ability to sustain a well-trained workforce, school officials and education experts said.

Nassau and Suffolk saw drops of 16.7% and 10.5%, respectively, from fall 2019 to fall 2020, according to records from the State University of New York. Most other local institutions of higher learning saw enrollment declines that rarely rose above 5%, school figures show.

What we know

Community college enrollment: Nassau and Suffolk saw drops of 16.7% and 10.5%, respectively, from fall 2019 to fall 2020.

Who’s affected: Prospective students, including those who may not again consider enrolling. The declines also have led to loss of faculty.

What’s being done: Colleges have been distributing laptops and Wi-Fi hot spots for students who did not have a computer at home or lacked internet access.

“If you look at the pandemic, it had a greater impact on blue-collar workers and communities of color. Those are our students,” interim Suffolk County Community College President Louis Petrizzo said.

Over the past decade, Nassau’s enrollment has dropped by about 10,000 students, a whopping 42% decline — from 23,767 in the fall of 2010 to 13,864 in the fall of 2020, according to SUNY records.

Suffolk saw enrollment drop by more than 4,000 students during that decade, a 15% decline — from 26,719 to 22,579, SUNY records show.

Community colleges have historically provided an affordable option to people who don’t have the finances or academic achievement needed for other schools. They often serve people who are lower income, or who may work and have a family. The schools also provide a valuable training ground for people seeking employment in trades such as nursing, auto technology and as dental assistants.

Many of their students come from minority households. A total of 53% of students at Nassau and 37% at Suffolk were minorities this past school year, according to SUNY data. Nassau Community College may well have seen greater enrollment declines than Suffolk because it is located in an area with more low-income people and communities of color, SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras said.

Low-income, Black and Hispanic families have been especially hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, worsening economic and educational challenges that predate the coronavirus, said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center in Herndon, Virginia.

“Before the pandemic, we were closing some of the gaps in access to education,” Shapiro said. “This [past] year, progress was erased and the gaps again are widening.”

How the economy affects enrollment

Together, Nassau and Suffolk community colleges educate more than 30,000 students a year. Nassau has a campus in Garden City, and Suffolk has three campuses, in Selden, Brentwood and Riverhead. The schools are funded through a mix of state, county and student charges.

The generally good economy over much of the past decade actually worked against community college enrollment, said Lindsey Angioletti, spokeswoman for Nassau Community College. Community colleges tend to thrive during hard economic times, as people seek to build new and better skills for the workforce, she said. This occurred after the Great Recession in 2008.

“More individuals are looking to go directly into the workforce, or choose to attend a technical school to go directly into the workforce,” Angioletti said. She noted that nearly 60% of Nassau’s students receive some type of financial aid.

In explaining the long-term enrollment declines at community colleges, researchers also point to population declines that have decreased overall college enrollment over the years, and the growing importance of a four-year degree.

“Increasingly, in places like Long Island, you need bachelor’s degrees to get good jobs,” said Davis Jenkins, senior researcher with the Community College Research Center at Columbia University.

The pandemic blew apart the theory that community colleges thrive during bad times, Angioletti said.

“The past year, given the pandemic, and the transition to remote and online learning, a number of students chose to take a gap year in their education,” Angioletti said.

The enrollment declines at both schools have led to fewer classes, loss of faculty, hiring freezes and financial pressures, school officials said.

Hopes that enrollment would grow with the spring semester, with more face-to-face instruction, didn’t pan out. Suffolk lost another 6,568 students from the fall to spring semester, a 29% drop, according to school figures. That drop exceeded the combined losses of the prior decade.

Nassau did not provide its spring enrollment, saying the figure was not final, Angioletti said. The school also declined several Newsday requests to speak with college President Jermaine Williams.

Community colleges, where virtually anyone can register if they have a high school diploma or GED, provide a springboard for low-income students to better jobs and higher earnings, said Brandy Scott, president of the Long Island Black Educators Association.

Scott worried that the longer students stay away from college, the greater the risk of them not coming back.

“They get caught up in the cycle of economics — of taking that job, of moving on with their lives. They get married and have children,” Scott said. “It becomes almost impossible for them to go back to their dreams.”

Gianna Iervolino was among those who abandoned plans to attend college last fall. The 18-year-old graduated from Centereach High School last year and wanted to go to college, but she did not want to continue virtual learning. She also wasn’t sure which career she wanted to pursue, she said.

“I’m much better learning one on one, where somebody is showing it to me,” Iervolino said.

By July, she had made up her mind to skip a year, and she’s spent time since practicing to obtain a license so she can become a hair stylist and makeup artist, she said. She said she expects to take the test soon. She said she’ll enroll in the fall semester if she can attend the college with in-person learning, and she’ll then split her time between working and school.

“I think I may pursue interior design,” Iervolino said. “It’s a lot of fun.”

Important training grounds

Community colleges serve as important training grounds for the Island’s workforce, so significant, sustained drops in enrollment could hurt the Long Island economy, Petrizzo said.

Across the country, community college enrollment has declined 9.5% since last spring, about double the figure for four-year schools, according to National Student Clearinghouse. College enrollment declines were 2.3 times steeper for those from low-income high schools compared to higher-income schools, the clearinghouse said.

Nationally, the enrollment decline is even greater among Black and Hispanic students: Blacks saw a 19% drop from fall 2019 to fall 2020, and Hispanics saw a 16% drop, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.

Community college students tend to be older than those attending four-year schools. Many of those, who also work and have children, lost their jobs, or stayed home to watch over children during the pandemic, forgoing higher education for more immediate priorities, Petrizzo said.

Career pathways, guidance needed

This past week, the Suffolk County Community College’s board of trustees approved a $208 million budget that represents a $5 million reduction in expenditures. The college faced a $2.5 million budget hole due to the loss of student tuition and other pandemic-related costs, officials said.

The board also froze tuition for the second year in a row, officials said.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has hit Suffolk students particularly hard,” said the board’s budget and finance chairman, Kevin O’Connor. “The Board of Trustees recognizes that we cannot ask our students and their families to shoulder a greater share of the burden during this tough time.”

Suffolk County Community College, the largest community college in the state, is eligible for $38 million in federal stimulus money, has distributed about $6 million of that to students, and plans to distribute another $6 million, officials said.

The budget must still be approved by the county legislature and the SUNY board of trustees.

Nassau Community College’s board of trustees has yet to approve a budget for the next school year.

Last year, the college approved a $182 million budget, officials said. The school projects a $6.5 million revenue deficit. The school also instituted a $100 increase in tuition last year, though officials have committed to no further increases for the next three years, officials said.

Nassau received $12 million in federal stimulus aid and is awaiting word on more funding from the recent stimulus package.

The pandemic exposed a flaw in many community colleges — that students need programs with a strong pathway to good jobs and more options to build skills they can market, said Melissa Leavitt, director of research at Strada, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit that advocates for a better connection between education and employment.

“People want to make sure that their education is worth it, that it is leading toward a career goal,” she said.

In addition, community college students often need more guidance than traditional four-year college students, who are often more committed to taking their education to a degree, she said. When schools went to virtual learning, many prospective students lost their connection to a high school or college guidance counselor, who traditionally help with registering, picking courses and signing up for financial aid, Leavitt said.

“When someone is disconnected to those forms of guidance, they are even more difficult to reach,” Leavitt said. “That’s when it’s important for schools to get creative and keep people involved and connected.”

Schools reaching out in new ways

Both Nassau and Suffolk community college officials said they are finding new ways to reach out to students.

Over the past year, Suffolk coordinated teams of volunteers to call every student to learn if the student was enrolled or had problems enrolling, and then offered assistance, officials said. If the student needed help, they were connected with a counselor or the department that could assist. For those students who did not want to register virtually — or wanted in-person assistance or academic counseling — the college offered in-person registration days with health protocols, they said.

Suffolk also distributed hundreds of laptops and Wi-Fi hot spots for students who did not have a computer at home or lacked internet access.

Nassau Community College expanded its Wi-Fi into its parking lots and distributed nearly 1,500 loaner laptops to students, faculty and staff. The school also distributed $6 million in federal CARES Act money, officials said.

While Nassau and Suffolk college officials express optimism that more students will attend the upcoming fall semester, as they offer more in-class learning, experts said they don’t expect a quick recovery from the enrollment challenges.

“I fear that the economic damage to these students and their families has been so severe and so deep, that even when schools open and the economy improves, many of these would-be students will be thinking about going to work, not to college,” Shapiro said.

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