Illinois College Enrollment Drops As Students Take A Pandemic Pause

Declining enrollment is raising concerns about students falling off track. But some say they need the time off to reflect and realign goals.

Vincent Byas is taking a break from City Colleges of Chicago and got a job at Lakeshore Learning. He's hoping to transfer to a four-year school. Courtesy of Vincent Byas / WBEZ
Vincent Byas is taking a break from City Colleges of Chicago and got a job at Lakeshore Learning. He's hoping to transfer to a four-year school. Courtesy of Vincent Byas / WBEZ

Illinois College Enrollment Drops As Students Take A Pandemic Pause

Declining enrollment is raising concerns about students falling off track. But some say they need the time off to reflect and realign goals.

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Sitting for long hours in front of his computer watching PowerPoint presentations last fall left college student Vincent Byas bored, drained and restless.

Once a good student, his motivation tanked — and so did his grades.

“Being away from other classmates, professors and that kind of in-person experience that I think I thrive on … really hurt me,” said Byas, a second-year student at one of the City Colleges of Chicago.

Byas, who lives in Beverly on the South Side, decided to take this spring semester off to rethink his goals. He found a job and is hoping to transfer to Columbia College for next school year.

Ziolet Nellum is also taking a semester off from the challenges of remote learning at City Colleges. She’s trying to figure out what she really wants to study.

“Deciding to take time off wasn’t easy because I was mostly afraid about what my family would say, especially my mom,” said Nellum, who is undecided about her career path.

Byas and Nellum are among thousands of students who have postponed college for at least a semester since remote learning started last spring. Enrollment is down at many Illinois colleges and universities since the pandemic began, continuing a long-term downward trend. Community colleges have been hit especially hard.

Enrollment is down by 14% percent this fall and spring compared to last school year at Illinois community colleges, according to the Illinois Community College Board. This includes City Colleges of Chicago. Low enrollment at two-year schools is greater among Latino students, who are among the most affected by the pandemic.

This trend has caused concerns among experts who say once students disenroll from college, it’s harder to get them back. Studies have shown the percentage of students coming back after dropping out of school is generally low.

“We do worry about the loss of what we call academic momentum,” said Paige Ponder, CEO of One Million Degrees, a nonprofit that supports community college students. “That you sort of get out of the habit, things get a little rusty of being a student and there’s some catching up to do.”

Still, Ponder is optimistic. She said with the right programs, those students could be reenrolled. Many of these students are using the time to recharge and realign their priorities, as well as to help their families. Some experts say these students need this extra time.

“We talk about schools often in this realm of two-year and four-year colleges,” said Dominique McKoy, with the To&Through Project. “But often, students are taking six years to complete their degree, and that’s actually normal.”

The big question, he said, is how to support them as they are dealing with issues outside of school and before their career plans get completely derailed.

How colleges can help

Many college students say the stresses of the pandemic have simply been too much, and there has been too little available to help them.

That’s what happened to Yessica Vargas, who was expected to graduate from the University of Chicago in June. She’ll be the first in her family to graduate. Instead, she put school on pause.

With thousands more applicants than seats, the University of Chicago and other competitive schools haven’t seen their enrollment drop. But there are still students there struggling.

“Some of us had easier times on campus because we had access to resources and support, but now, since the pandemic, it’s just been a lot more difficult trying to navigate resources,” said Vargas, a sociology major. She said professors were more accommodating in the beginning of the pandemic, but that changed as time went on.

Until now, postponing school had never been an option for Vargas, who wanted to get a degree to help her family. Vargas grew up on Chicago’s Southeast Side. She is constantly worried about her parents. Her dad works at a food packaging business, and her mom is a home care worker.

The pressure leading up to graduation overwhelmed her..

“The economic instability has been very stressful, and thinking about graduation has been terrifying,” she said.

She ended up in the emergency room recently and was hospitalized for a few days due to school-induced stress. Vargas says that could all have been prevented if she had more support. But she couldn’t get counseling services at school.

“Before I had gotten worse, I had tried to reach out to my student counseling center and the first appointment that they gave me was four weeks ahead,” Vargas said. “I wish I had an appointment with them sooner.

Ziolet Nellum in front of her home in Austin on Chicago’s West Side. Courtesy of Ziolet Nellum / WBEZ

Nellum, who was enrolled at Wilbur Wright College on the Northwest Side, said college advisors should be more open-minded about helping students develop a graduation plan even when they need to take time off or are undecided about their career paths.

“I saw myself running without a goal, and that was just pointless to me. It was pointless to take classes and not know where I was going,” said Nellum

In the fall, she was taking online classes and also had to watch her twin sisters while her mother worked. She realized she needed a break to figure out a plan forward.

“I wish they were a little more reassuring in the counseling department about how to navigate through being undecided and having moments of doubt of where you want to go,” Nellum said.

Officials at City Colleges say heading into this fall, they plan to double down on strategies to bring students back by offering incentives that can reduce the cost of admissions between $200 and $900 per semester, offering financial relief to former students who couldn’t pay and dropped out and providing more support for students trying to enroll. They are planning for a mix of in-person and remote classes to fit students’ scheduling needs.

Regaining strength

Nellum, Byas and Vargas all want to make the best out of their time away from school. Nellum is doing community radio and trying to get a new podcast off the ground. “It’s called “Austin Has The Mic,” and it centers around my community, my neighborhood, just getting residents’ voices out,” she said. “It’s a really fun project.”

Byas, who wants to pursue a career in creative writing, is working at a school supply store. He hopes to save as much as he can for when he hopefully transfers to a four-year college next school year.

“Having a source of income has definitely helped toward getting everything in order,” Byas said. “I am able to look after myself in a way that I think it’s necessary, and it’s kind of recommended for anybody my age.”

Vargas is hoping to work on campus and finish up her senior thesis at her own pace. She is looking forward to reconnecting with family members now that more people are getting the COVID-19 vaccinate and infection rates are going down. She hopes to go back to school refreshed sometime in the fall or winter.

But, Vargas insists, if college officials want students to keep showing up to class and graduate moving forward, they need to invest more in resources to support them, especially during tough times.

“Not just academically, but also making sure that their student counseling services are well funded and well-staffed,” she said.

Adriana Cardona-Maguigad covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @AdrianaCardMag.