Suburban colleges report huge enrollment declines among Latino, Black and adult learners

The coronavirus pandemic's disproportionate impact on racial and ethnic minorities extends beyond higher rates of infection and deaths statewide.

Its economic fallout also is hurting their educational progress, say leaders at suburban community colleges seeing huge declines in student enrollment, particularly among adult learners, Black, Latino and other disadvantaged student populations.

Among the factors contributing to enrollment declines are students' reservations with returning to in-person instruction amid a pandemic, limited access to technology - such as laptops, internet and Wi-Fi hot spots for remote learning - job loss and challenges balancing family and work obligations with supporting their children's virtual schooling.

"It's just too hard," said Arlene Santos-George, dean of adult education and English as a Second Language (ESL) for College of Lake County in Grayslake.

The college has 10,493 students enrolled this fall. Its adult learner population - students seeking to earn their high school equivalency and English literacy skills - is down nearly 42% compared to last fall. The percentage of new students enrolled is down 69%, students returning from more than a year ago is down 39% and continuing students are down 22% from last fall.

  Students sit one to a table during a physical therapist assistant clinical practicum course at Elgin Community College. Rick West/

College officials have been reaching out to adult learners and Latino students through mailings, phone calls, social media and online and radio advertising.

"We also have flyers in the whole community where there are immigrant populations, grocery stores, laundromats, public spaces," Santos-George said. "It's unlike any other semester."

CLC has distributed $2.4 million in CARES Act funds for students in need due to COVID-19. Yet, some challenges are harder to overcome.

"Students are choosing to forgo going to school, because they don't have the financial resources or they are choosing to support their family," said Erin Fowles, CLC dean of enrollment.

Enrollment in for-credit college courses is down nearly 12% for Latino students.

"Of all our ethnic and racial categories, that is the worst," Fowles said. "We're helping students through continuous disbursement ... about $500 per term that they are enrolled. For someone who has food, rent, transportation needs, that is not enough. We have seen more students saying we're going to wait and see what next semester is like or take an entire year off."

Oakton Community College in Des Plaines has seen a 51% decline in student enrollment in for-credit ESL courses compared to last fall. To help students overcome barriers to access, the college is providing transportation and technological and financial aid through the Oakton CARES Program and the Oakton Educational Foundation's Student Success Fund.

"While these resources are available to all students impacted by COVID-19, it is often low-income students and those from minority groups that experience the greatest technology and resource gaps," spokesman Stephen Butera said.

  College of Lake County student Cesar Alvarez, of Fox Lake, works on a project in class at the Grayslake campus. Paul Valade/

For the first time in seven years, Harper College in Palatine is seeing a dip in Latino student enrollment - its second-largest racial/ethnic population at 29%. Enrollment of Black students and adult learners also has been hard hit.

"There's just perhaps an element of families rallying together to keep the lights on and rent paid," said Bob Parzy, Harper interim associate provost of enrollment services. "A lot of students are still trying to decide whether they can fit college in."

Harper has 10,600 students enrolled in credit-bearing courses this fall - a 5% decline overall. Its new and continuing student enrollment is down between 18% and 25%. Among Latinos, new student enrollment is down about 18% and 4% overall for new and continuing. Among Blacks, new student enrollment is down about 30% and 12% overall.

The college has created wraparound services to help students who are not comfortable with online learning through tutoring and technological support. Its PASO (Project Achieve Surpassing Obstacles) program specifically targets Latino families providing a parent university that has "taken on even a larger role because of the pandemic," Parzy said.

"It's been a struggle for community colleges. We're part of the community," Parzy said. "It's tough when you see a lot of families hurt and you see students hurting. We've also really tried to be empathetic to what is going on with our students and just trying to be accessible, to be present in the moment."

Yet, while students might be focusing on other priorities now, educators are hopeful losing them in this climate doesn't mean they are lost forever.

"We've done our best," said Elizabeth Hobson, dean of adult education at Elgin Community College, which has nearly 7,900 students enrolled this fall.

The college is seeing an 80% decline in ESL students, 40% drop in adult learners and about 13% dip in the overall student population from last fall.

"It might not be immediate. It might take a little time for them to come back, but I do think they will," Hobson said.

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