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The pandemic has hit the working class hard. The colleges that serve them are also suffering.

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The coronavirus pandemic has been particularly hard on the American working class, causing unemployment to rise among those without a college degree and eliminating low-wage jobs by the millions. Now the education system created to help these same workers is also under threat.

Colleges of all types are struggling under the shadow of the coronavirus, but the nation’s community college system has been disproportionately affected, with tens of thousands of students forced to delay school or drop out due to the pandemic and the economic crisis it created.

Enrollment is down 9.5% at more than 1,000 two-year colleges in the United States from figures last spring, according to figures from the National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit that saw a decline similar last fall. This is more than double the loss suffered by four-year schools.

Community college enrollment among black and Hispanic students declined even more sharply, with a 19% drop from fall 2019 to fall 2020 among black students and 16% among Hispanic students. Of the five million students enrolled in community colleges, about 40% are black or Latino and nearly half are low-income, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.

“A lot of our students come to college with challenges,” said Tracy D. Hall, president of Southwest Tennessee Community College in Memphis. “Now you add a pandemic to that, it only exacerbates it.”

Community colleges, the vast majority of which are public schools, have historically provided an inexpensive alternative for students who lack financial support from their parents or academic preparation for four-year colleges. They are also an essential training ground for students seeking employment with local businesses, from auto mechanics to welders to dental hygienists. About 27 percent of the country’s more than 17 million students are enrolled in two-year programs.

President Biden, whose wife Dr. Jill Biden is a community college professor, cited the importance of community colleges to educational equity. In the coming weeks, he is expected to offer to make two-year schools free as part of the $ 3 trillion reconstruction plan he began rolling out on Wednesday.

By providing free classes for many, but perhaps not all, students, the Biden plan would also free up other forms of federal assistance for low-income students, such as the Pell Grants, to pay for things like housing, food or books, according to Congress assistants who have been briefed on certain aspects of the proposal. Food and housing insecurity are often cited as the main reasons low-income students drop out of school.

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Overall, Tennessee community colleges lost about 10 percent of their total enrollment, reflecting national numbers. Southwest, a two-year public school with seven locations in the western part of the state, has lost 19% of its enrollment in the past year, making it one of the 13 most deeply affected community colleges in the Tennessee.

In the southwest, about 800 black men suspended their studies. There are now fears that the pandemic could permanently derail their educational path, as well as low-income and minority students across the country – which could worsen educational inequalities with white students.

“It’s depressing,” said Russ Deaton, executive vice chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, which oversees community colleges in the state. “A lot of the students we lost were attached to higher education anyway. It didn’t take much to get them out of the path of education.

Many community college students are adults – the average age is 28 – and even before the pandemic, they struggled to stay in school, juggling schoolwork with financial pressures, the needs of childcare and even homelessness. Before the pandemic, statistics showed that at least 40 percent of community college students had left school before earning a certificate or diploma.

For these students, the pandemic upset an already difficult balancing act, leaving many simply exhausted. For Corey Ray Baranowski – 33, father of five, ages 5 months to 11 – the breaking point came last year.

Before the health crisis, Mr. Baranowski and his wife juggled their large family, several jobs and studies at Jackson State Community College, another school hard hit by the pandemic, in Jackson, Tennessee, 90 miles northeast. from Memphis.

The dominoes started tumbling last spring, when the pandemic hit her small community of Lexington, Tenn.

First, the school system where Mr. Baranowski and his wife, a photographer, had worked as substitute teachers, has been closed. Then, that same day, their three school-aged children were sent home to learn from a distance. Their community college has also suspended in-person classes.

“It was disturbing,” Mr. Baranowski recalls. He and his wife, who were then expecting their fifth child, struggled to continue their own schoolwork while making sure the children were doing theirs, straining the family’s computing capacity – and multitasking skills.

“There were bologna sandwiches, peanut butter and jelly going, trying to manage the money,” Mr. Baranowski said. Overwhelmed, he dropped out of two classes last spring and decided not to re-enroll this year.

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But in August, Mr. Baranowski found a job at a juvenile correctional center. The couple hope to return to college next fall.

“My goal is to graduate and become a teacher,” he said.

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As Jackson State President George Pimentel says, “A lot of our students just hit the pause button.”

Community colleges normally lose students during boom times when jobs are plentiful, then see enrollments increase during economic downturns as unemployed people seek training for new careers – as happened after the 2009 recession. .

So why is there currently a decline in enrollments during a downturn? One theory is that the relief programs passed by Congress, combined with the hope that jobs will return quickly once the pandemic is over, have made the unemployed less inclined to enroll in community colleges to retrain for new careers. .

“It always felt like jobs would come back as soon as the numbers went down, so why would you want to start a degree program?” said Doug Shapiro, executive director of research for the National Student Clearinghouse.

Another theory is that many of the skills taught in community colleges do not transfer well to online teaching formats. Rushton W. Johnson, vice president of student affairs at Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, which has seen a 15% drop in enrollment since last spring, says the pandemic has been a “perfect storm” for students. community colleges.

“It’s impossible to learn how to weld, drive a truck, cook, draw blood, wire an online network, without handling equipment and tools,” Johnson said.

While many low-income Tennessee students can attend community college tuition for free using federal and state grants, work disruptions have made it difficult for many to afford basic living expenses.

Last spring, 25-year-old Katie Dollar could no longer afford rent when the arcade game she worked in closed due to the pandemic. She packed her bags and returned home to live with her father, intending to continue her education at Pellissippi online.

Enrollment declines have been particularly strong among freshmen who have never attended college at all, including 2020 high school graduates. Tennessee community colleges.

The pandemic has also made a dent in community college budgets, forcing layoffs in some cases. The financial blow to community colleges has been exacerbated by state funding cuts disproportionately targeting two-year colleges, according to a recent study by the Association of State Higher Education Executives . Southwest faces a budget deficit – over $ 10 million – and hopes to be saved with funds from the $ 1.9 trillion stimulus package signed this month by Mr Biden.

Of the nearly $ 40 billion allocated to colleges in the bill, about $ 12.7 billion will go to community colleges, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.

With its main campuses in Memphis, a predominantly black city, Southwest is expected to receive around $ 12 million from the stimulus package.

Dr Deaton, of the Tennessee Board of Regents, said aggressive outreach to students could be key to encouraging many to re-enroll. Community colleges statewide are already working to attract students whose studies have been disrupted by the pandemic.

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Southwest began such outreach, convincing 80 black college students to return. It also purchased 3,500 student laptops, installed wireless internet coverage in a parking lot, and provided hotspots in some homes to encourage students to stay enrolled.

But Southwest has yet to convince Charles Moore to return.

A year ago, Mr. Moore, 20, was supporting himself by waiting for tables while studying criminal justice in Southwest. Then the coronavirus spread to the United States and his plans to graduate from college collapsed.

First, his employer, the Olive Garden, fired him. When his campus closed and switched to distance learning, he struggled to adjust to online learning. He was able to get a new job in security, but it required him to travel to Mississippi, which left him little time to do his homework. In May, he gave up.

Mr. Moore says he wants to be a sheriff’s deputy, a job that doesn’t require a college degree. So, amid the uncertainty and unpredictability of the pandemic, he made no immediate plans to return to school.

But he still thinks of life on campus, of being exposed to new people and new ideas, of having “that college experience”.

“I felt like I was headed for something,” he says.

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