COVID-19 dims recession-inspired draw of Kansas community colleges as retraining crucibles

By: - October 19, 2020 4:00 am

Enrollment fell 14.1% this fall at the state’s 19 community colleges as COVID-19 disrupted expectations that more students would seek degrees during economic turmoil. (Submitted)

TOPEKA — Neosho Community College president Brian Inbody relied on precedent to make assumptions about how the pandemic of COVID-19 could influence enrollment at the southeastern Kansas college during a period of massive unemployment and business realignment.

In wake of the brutal U.S. recession from 2007 to 2009, he said, enrollment at Neosho Community College increased 21% per year over a three-year period. Early in the pandemic of 2020, higher education institutions were thrown into an online instructional format as COVID-19 spread into the heartland. Unemployment in Kansas surged from 3.1% in February to 11.9% in April. The stage appeared set for community colleges to answer the bell of another recession.

“We were expecting an enrollment increase this fall originally,” Inbody said on the Kansas Reflector podcast. “If you think about what happened in 2008 and 2009 and 2010 because of the economic downturn, what we saw was nontraditional students who had lost their jobs come back to community college to be retrained.”

Instead, enrollment at Neosho Community College fell 9.5% this fall semester. It was a combination of factors related to the coronavirus.

Brian Inbody, president of Neosho Community College in southeast Kansas, says the coronavirus-triggered enrollment decline at Kansas community colleges will eventually rebound and prompt a surge in demand for occupational training and job retraining. (Submitted)
Brian Inbody, president of Neosho Community College in southeast Kansas, says the coronavirus-triggered enrollment decline at Kansas community colleges will eventually rebound and prompt a surge in demand for occupational training and job retraining. (Submitted)

Kansas teenagers, and their parents, were anxious about the move during a pandemic to campuses built on the idea of routine mass gatherings. International students had difficulty acquiring visas as the virus infected the global population. And there was no flood of nontraditional students in a position to add new skills to better their economic standing.

“Folks were, I think, waiting this out and to see what was going to happen with their jobs,” Inbody said.

Overall, enrollment at 32 public universities and colleges in Kansas declined this fall by 8.1%. The universities dodged a bullet, dropping a mere 3.5%. Kansas technical colleges lost 9.4% of enrollment. Headcount at the state’s 19 community colleges cratered 14.1%.

Carter File, president at Hutchinson Community College, said fall enrollment on the Reno County campus slipped a modest 3.6%.

The fall semester decline is attributable to COVID-19 persuading some students not to dive into college life so soon, he said. In the spring semester, classes were shifted online as in-person instruction was suspended at colleges and universities.

We worked very hard, as all of our community colleges did, over the summer to recruit students, because we were so disrupted in the spring recruiting students. So enrollment is off at Hutchinson Community College just a little bit,” File said.

Heather Morgan, executive director of the Kansas Association of Community Colleges, said COVID-19 also prompted K-12 public school districts to delay opening of fall classes until after Labor Day. That didn’t mesh with the decision of community colleges to open fall classes sooner.

In addition, she said, some high schools opened in an online format and made it more difficult for students to deal with dual-credit courses at community colleges.

“That had a much larger impact than I think anyone could have predicted,” Morgan said. “The other thing to keep in mind is Kansas community colleges deliver 70% of the technical education in the state of Kansas. We are providing the vast majority of workforce training.”

She said the enrollment decline in 2020 would have implications for the Kansas economy. Businesses are reliant on a steady flow of newly trained workers in health care fields, advanced manufacturing, welding and other occupations, she said.

“We’re going to need to think about how do we rebound from this pandemic,” she said. I think that we proved in 2008 that we’re nimble and can meet the needs of Kansans. It’s really going to be about how do Kansans feel. Do they feel safe? Do they feel ready to come back to school? And, what jobs are going to be there post pandemic?”

Inbody, of Neosho Community College, said the introduction of a successful vaccine for COVID-19 during the next year would allow more people to return to work or seek community college retraining opportunities.

“That’s why we’re standing ready to reactivate and grow in size like we did in 2009 and 2010,” he said. “We are the minutemen of education … ready to start a program tomorrow if you need it. And so I believe that might happen probably as early as next fall.”

File said this transition will occur during a period in which Kansas is experiencing a demographic shift with fewer college-age people and rural counties losing population.

“We may have to be more creative and more flexible in how we offer education and how we go about trying to attract students to community colleges in the future,” the Hutchinson college president said.

Morgan said she would urge the 2021 Kansas Legislature to reconsider a bill passed by the House and Senate before being vetoed by Gov. Laura Kelly amid the pandemic.

The bill would have been beneficial to community and technical colleges by allowing K-12 school districts to pay for all or a portion of tuition, fees, books, materials and equipment for any high school student concurrently enrolled in college. In addition, school districts would be allowed to provide transportation to and from classes for dually enrolled students.

“That was a relatively low cost item that would open up Kansas community colleges to low-income and middle-income Kansans and really help prime the pump of the Kansas workforce,” Morgan said. “We think the Kansas promise scholarship act wouldbe one of the things that the Kansas Legislature looks at this coming session in regards to how do we help Kansas recover from the from the pandemic.”

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International. He has been recognized for investigative reporting on Kansas government and politics. He won the Kansas Press Association's Victor Murdock Award six times. The William Allen White Foundation honored him four times with its Burton Marvin News Enterprise Award. The Kansas City Press Club twice presented him its Journalist of the Year Award and more recently its Lifetime Achievement Award. He earned an agriculture degree at Kansas State University and grew up on a small dairy and beef cattle farm in Missouri. He is an amateur woodworker and drives Studebaker cars.