Where Have All My Students Gone? Pandemic-induced Student Enrollment Decline

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With only a little more than a month of classes left in the spring semester I’m increasingly concerned about my incredibly shrinking classroom population.


Pre-pandemic a full class at my community college contained 32 enrolled students. This week I have been lucky to count 10-15 students in each of my on-campus courses. It’s terribly disconcerting. Yesterday I asked students in my 1pm class “where is everyone?” The twelve present students assured me that the problem is not the professor (phew!). “All my classes are empty like this one,” a young man offered, hoping to appease my concern that students simply hate my teaching style. In one class, he continued, “only 5 of the original 20 students are still regularly coming to class.”


We know that nationally the COVID pandemic has caused a decline in college enrollment. In the fall 2021 National Public Radio (NPR) reported that “At U.S. community colleges, the freshman class is now 20.8% below the number for the freshman class in 2019."(Elissa Nadworny, “College Enrollment Plummeted During the Pandemic”) Those of us teaching in community colleges have witnessed this precipitous drop in enrollment and are seeing the negative ramifications for our students. The hallways, once so noisy that I could not teach with my door open, are nearly silent. The cafeteria used to bubble with energy and student activities; most days the space is quiet. Students interact with the receptionist at the COVID check-in point and then go silently to their classrooms. 


In previous semesters I regularly divided students into groups for discussions and low-stakes classroom-based projects. Being able to have 5-6 groups report to the class on their collective work and findings has provided opportunities to expand students’ perspectives of historical topics. Students benefited from meeting other people in the class and often developed collaborative relationships that helped with exam preparation. I prepped my teaching plans this semester with the hope that while the overall campus population would be smaller, individual classes would feel normal. I was unprepared for the number of students who have left mid-semester. While some have reported changing jobs necessitating a break in their academic plans, others tell me that returning to on-campus learning has been more difficult than they expected. Many dislike leaving home to attend classes after nearly two years of remote learning, while others have found that family and work responsibilities have increased dramatically due to pandemic-related changes.


Those students who are coming to campus need to be encouraged to participate in the social engagement component of undergraduate education. This past week our campus hosted two events for students to discuss race relations in the United States. While attendance at the streamed event was significantly higher than the in-person, it was obvious to me as I listened to students’ questions and comments that our young people need to interact more with their peers and their professors, as well people from outside of their college communities who can offer insight into other experiences and viewpoints. The isolation of learning during the pandemic needs to be counterbalanced with encouragement to be interactive. My goal for upcoming course planning is to find more ways for my students to engage with each other, even if the numbers in the classroom are small. Suggestions welcome! 

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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.