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Community colleges continue major enrollment decline

Large numbers of students left school during the pandemic and never came back

At Northern Virginia Community College, a preliminary fall count of students showed enrollment slid 5 percent since just before the coronavirus pandemic began. At Prince George’s Community College, it fell 10 percent. At Montgomery College, it plunged 19 percent.

These schools, major gateways to higher education in the Washington suburbs, reflect a challenge that has emerged in sharp relief since fall 2019: The public health crisis and economic and social upheaval of the past two years have led to significant enrollment declines at community colleges around the country.

The trend, pronounced last year, deepened in many places in 2021. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found nearly 15 percent fewer students at the nation’s public two-year colleges in the fall compared with two years earlier. That has profound ramifications for the education and career prospects of people from low-to-moderate-income families because these are the nation’s least expensive colleges, dedicated to open access and social mobility.

“We are certainly concerned,” said Charlene M. Dukes, interim president of Montgomery College. The school reported 17,284 students as of October, down from 21,260 two years earlier. It has not laid off anyone, Dukes said, but it has slowed hiring to cut expenses. It also has intensified efforts to recruit and retain students, through financial help in some situations as well as dual-enrollment programs with local high schools, among other measures.

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