Posted on: April 29, 2021 Posted by: Glacier Staff Comments: 0

Graphics by Sarah Kauffman

By Mariah Trujillo, JRN 111 Student

Just before the pandemic rocked the nation, Julia Barrientos Rosales, a second-year student at Moraine Valley, planned to further her education and pursue a career in teaching Spanish. Rosales felt she was finally on the right path, but just as she was about to take the next step, she found herself trapped behind CDC regulations.

“During my second semester, the pandemic hit us, and that’s when everything changed,” Rosales said. “It’s given me the opportunity to see that it’s okay to take a break since I cannot control everything.”

Rosales, like many other students beginning their college experience during a pandemic, has chosen to take a gap year.

Students taking a break from their education has been a clear trend since COVID-19 surged through the nation, a trend that appears to have hit community colleges the hardest. According to the National Student Clearinghouse, overall community college enrollment has declined by 4 percent or nearly 530,000 students since last fall.

Moraine Valley in particular has seen a dramatic decline of 18 percent with the loss of 2,413 students over the time span of a single year. The number of students enrolled dropped from 13,398 in spring 2020 to 10,985 for spring 2021, according to Sadya Khan, Moraine Valley’s director of institutional research and planning.

Moraine is not the only community college in Illinois that has seen a decline. Among Illinois community colleges overall, enrollment is down 14 percent from last year, according to the Illinois Community College Board.

Khan said that while the pandemic itself is the main reason for the decline, other factors for Moraine’s diverse student population include newfound responsibilities and lack of time.

“You have students who are afraid of getting sick, who have to take care of loved ones who are sick, who are struggling with maybe if they have children and have to support them through a virtual learning environment,” Khan said. “Oftentimes, enrolling in school is at the bottom of the priority list.”

Drop surprises students, administration

Moraine’s enrollment decline surprised some students.

“I would think that the enrollment dropped by like, I don’t know, maybe 30 to 40 percent,” Julio Gonzalez, a first-year biology major at Moraine said. “I was expecting the enrollment to be a lot worse after everything.”

Sophomore Adrianna Tito said she thought enrollment would have increased. “But I guess it makes sense,” she said. “Maybe because people are out of work or having to take care of family and kids.”

Administrators also were unable to predict the effects of the pandemic. In 2008, in response to the Great Recession, college enrollment increased by nearly 16 percent nationwide, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, many people were hoping we’d see a similar effect,” Khan said, pointing to 2008. “With people losing jobs, we saw an influx, an increase, in enrollment at community colleges.”

Now that the pandemic has gone on for more than a year, it is clear that the outcome has been the opposite of what was expected.

However, even as enrollment declines, Moraine does not appear to be in financial difficulties because over the years, the college has managed its finances to sustain such an unpredictable event.

Pamela Haney, vice president of academic affairs, says she believes the constant, in-depth reevaluations Moraine executes also play a key role in ensuring the well-being of the students and the institution as a whole.

“We prioritize funding based on the needs of students,” she said. “Annually, we have program reviews, so we will just continue with our normal processes and make sure we are prioritizing based on student needs.”

College works to keep students engaged

To combat further declines in enrollment, Moraine Valley is working to improve student engagement. The administration is open to student feedback and even expects students to need a little extra aid moving forward.

“I think moving forward, students are going to expect more flexibility, and we’re going to have to look at that,” Haney said. “We understand we’re going to have to face new challenges along the way in the short and long term, but I think our role will be to just adapt to those ongoing changes.”

Change is the only thing that seems predictable, according to Haney, who feels it’s unlikely things will ever be exactly the same as they were before the pandemic.

“I don’t think that we will ever return to normal as we want to consider it normal,” she said. “Right now, we don’t know what to expect, so we kind of take it day by day.”

I think moving forward, students are going to expect more flexibility, and we’re going to have to look at that.

Pamela Haney, Vice President of Academic Affairs

However, Haney is enthusiastic about the ways Moraine is working to keep current students engaged in the college experience, including holding virtual concerts, outdoor plays, and even movie nights on campus.

“You know, our Fine and Performing Arts Center, they are offering virtual concerts,” she said. “This summer, if all goes well, we will have an outdoor Shakespeare play, and then they do have movies, family movies that they are holding on-campus, outdoor family movies!”

While the administration is clearly excited to better student participation, the students seem just as eager to get back to campus and everyday life.

 “Like other schools, they have football games and big get-togethers, I feel like it’s a great thing to bring the people out and add to that connection,” Gonzalez said. “I could actually see myself going to something like that, I want to go see a movie.”