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Two-year colleges seek to rebuild Latino enrollment after COVID-19 decline

Eduardo Miranda shares how a hybrid model aims to keep in-person learning safe

A year ago, the halls at Capital Community College were bustling with activity as more than 3,000 full and part-time students began the fall semester in the school’s eleven-floor downtown Hartford campus.

Capital’s enrollment is among the most diverse in the region and Hispanics comprised nearly one-third of the student population. The Hartford college, which occupies half of the former G. Fox department store, was the first in Connecticut designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, having exceeded the 25 percent Hispanic student mark several years ago.

Today, Capital’s “vertical campus” is much quieter due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with access to the building tightly monitored and in-person instruction limited to paramedic, nursing, biology and chemistry classes.

In the spring, colleges quickly switched to only online classes. Still, with time to plan, Capital and others have chosen a hybrid model, 85 percent of the classes are being taught by computer with in-person instruction 15 percent.

Students who are permitted to enter the downtown campus find social distancing is the rule, class size is limited, the cafeteria is closed and access to the bookstore is by appointment.

“Students are required to wear masks at all times on campus. Masks will be provided if a student forgets their mask,” said Eduardo Miranda, associate dean of campus operations at Capital.

The switch to distance learning has not been easy, but administrators said, students are excited to begin or continue their education under the new setup. At the same time, administrators are continually evaluating the situation and open to potential changes.

“Every day we define a new norm.” Miranda said.

However, overall enrollment has decreased at Capital, and the eleven other two-year colleges are overseen by the Connecticut State Colleges & Universities. According to preliminary figures, the decline has been in the 10-13 percent range – final numbers are not expected until late September.

For Latinos, just as the pandemic has been disproportionately more challenging both in the number of cases and economics, the enrollment decrease is higher, estimated at about 17 percent.

There are various reasons for the lower enrollment at the state’s two-year college beyond the fear of contracting the highly contagious virus. Other “scenarios” noted at Capital include an older student population and the presence of many single parents who face child care challenges, Miranda said.

The enrollment picture is different at four-year colleges, reflective of national trends that show attendance gains at four-year schools and decreases at community colleges.

The National Student Clearing House, comparing the summer of 2019 to the summer of 2020, found that the enrollment at U.S. community colleges dropped six percent while it rose 2.8 percent at public four-year schools and 4 percent at private institutions.

The University of Connecticut projects a nine percent gain in Latino enrollment this fall, and Eastern Connecticut State College has seen a large increase in first-time Latino students.

Historically, two-year colleges have been a significant contributor to the rapid increase in the number of Hispanics entering higher education. They often are attracted by lower cost, accessibility, more flexible scheduling and job market-oriented programs.

In Connecticut, the two-year schools play an essential role as the first step toward four-year and graduate degrees, thereby preparing a relatively younger and growing Hispanic population to replace an aging and shrinking white workforce. The success of this process has been recognized as essential for the state’s economy to move forward.

To bolster its enrollment, Capital has employed a proactive approach that prioritizes a safe learning environment and stresses support, especially for remote learning.

Communication also is an important ingredient in Capital’s game plan. “Everyone is very open to sharing their thoughts via email, and the feedback from faculty has been positive, Miranda said. “They do feel safe on campus,” he observed.

One way Capital and other community colleges are attempting to rebuild enrollment is by introducing a late-start semester that will begin at the end of September. “This is a new option, with shorter eight-ten week courses, Miranda said.

The college’s support includes helping students with technology, said Vivian Nabeta, director of marketing and public relations. In addition to guidance, Capital has donated some computers to students, a process bolstered by the gift of 30 units from Otis Elevator, she said.

Capital has enlisted about 80 new registrants at special Saturday events  on campus, and at the Yard Goats stadium that featured, Miranda said, “one-stop shopping with admissions and financial aid people present.”

Also, faculty and staff are calling up students emphasizing that the campus is open and safe and has courses available; plenty of support with online learning and financial aid is available.

Like other community colleges, Capital is launching a late start semester that will begin at the end of September. “This is a new option, with shorter eight-ten week courses.

At the University of Connecticut, Latino enrollment increases from 12.1 percent in the fall 2019 to 13.9 percent this fall. This trend is in both undergraduate and graduate students.

These numbers represent underestimates since some Latino students are part of the 3.4 percent. This is up from 3 percent of the enrollment self-identified as multi-ethnic, explained Lloyd Blanchard, PhD, associate vice president for budget, management, and institutional research and associate professor in residence, Department of Public Polic.

While the fall Latino enrollment has dropped, the future looks brighter at Eastern Connecticut State University, one of four four-year CSUC institutions.

Elsa M. Núñez
President, Eastern Connecticut State University

“Our Latino numbers are down this year,” said university President Elsa M. Núñez said at the new semester was just beginning. “Fall 2019 we had 580 Latino students or 11.7 percent of the student population. As of now for fall 2020, we have 452 or 9.5 percent of the student population,” Dr. Núñez.

However, the trend is positive for incoming freshmen. “In May we had more deposits from Latino students compared to last May,” Núñez said, crediting a new admissions rating system.

On May 1, 2019, the Willimantic based university received deposits from  113 new Latino students (14.2 percent of the incoming class), but on May 15, 2020, there were 129 new Latino students (15.8 percent of the incoming class). 

Dr. Núñez identified three major factors for the decline in Hispanic enrollment this fall: “1. They are afraid of the virus and getting their family members sick; 2. Their families have less income and will be working to help support them (true for Black Students); 3. They did not do well online in the spring.”

After the initial “shock” of the COVID-19 pandemic on education in the spring, the state’s higher education institutions began charting a course to open safely in the fall.

CSUC is following the state’s guidance, which was developed by public health experts. This includes reconfiguring spaces to promote physical distancing, reducing the number of people on campus, and increased cleaning.

Capital has confined access to its urban campus to one entrance off Market Street and a temperature check is required. Campus security is noticed who will be coming into the building and students must check in and be on the in-person roster for that day. “They take their class and then check out,” Miranda said.

In addition, only three-people per elevator are allowed and the cafeteria has been closed. Visits to the bookstore are by appointment with most students ordering books online and then given a time slot when the can pick them up.

“We have taken the Centers for Disease Controls guidelines and upped them a little,” Miranda said.

UConn, like Capital Community College, has instituted safety measures such as requiring masks, regular deep cleaning, testing, tracing, and establishing quarantining capacity, Dr. Blanchard said.

“In terms of our classrooms, about 50 percent of our classes will be completely online in the fall,” Dr. Blanchard said. “In terms of our residence halls, we are limiting our 12,000-bed capacity to about 5,000 residents— about 42 percent of capacity.”

“I think we are socially distanced as much as feasible, and ready to have a successful semester,” the UConn administrator said.

A 2014-15 analysis conducted by Excelencia in Education, an organization devoted to Latino student success in higher education, found more than 23,000 Latinos were attending college in Connecticut, or 15 percent of the total enrollment, a proportion slightly less than their share of the state’s population now about 17 percent.

Connecticut boasts six HSI schools, all two-year colleges with the exception of the University of Connecticut branch in Stamford. Hispanic enrollment two years ago at these institutions ranged from 28.8 to 38.2 (Norwalk CC) percent.

Capital Community College recently benefited from its recognition under the U.S. Department of Education’s Title V Hispanic Serving Institutions program in the form of a $3 million, a five-year federal grant to improve student achievement and increase retention and graduation rates of low-income students.

The two-year graduation rate for Hispanics in Connecticut was 12 percent for Latinos, compared to 21 percent for whites in 2017-2018, according to Excelenica in Education.

Moreover, among adults over 25, only 24 percent of Latinos in the state hold a degree, associate or higher, compared to 53 percent of the white population.

Excelencia in Education advised the following for Connecticut: “State policies to increase Latino student success should keep in mind the profile of Latino students and adjust to meet their needs. Connecticut has a young and growing Latino population that is significantly more likely to enroll in a public, two-year institution.

“While some public, two-year institutions are top in awarding associate degrees to Latinos in Connecticut, degree completion is not reflective of their enrollment. Opportunities exist for two- and four-year institutions in Connecticut to help more Latino students complete a postsecondary education.”

As part of the ongoing effort to provide a safe, quality education experience, Miranda, who is Capital’s COVID-19 campus coordinator, meets once a week with similar officials from all the state’s campuses and representatives of the Department of Public Health.

“We do share,” Miranda says, with the differences between two- and four-year colleges and the various campus setups recognized.

Capital will decide in October what the spring 2021 registration will look like. “We will see where we are at,” Miranda said.

Miranda, Capital CEO G. Duncan Harris, and other staff communicate to potential Latino students because the campus is very safe, and there is plenty of support for those taking online classes. “And if you have a course on campus, there is plenty of personal protection equipment (PPE) available,” Miranda said, adding, “Please come, this is a great opportunity.”

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