Advantages of Community Colleges During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Over the last few months, it has become increasingly apparent that colleges and universities across the U.S. are feeling the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. In turn, many soon-to-be college students are changing their plans and have expressed specific concerns about the location and cost of their first-choice schools.

Community colleges are likely not the only higher education institutions with increased enrollment during economically uncertain time periods. However, there are characteristics of community colleges that make them uniquely suited for students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

First, demand for higher education is heavily influenced by price. This is a good thing for relatively inexpensive community colleges.

The average in-state tuition at public two-year institutions for the 2017-18 academic year was only $3,243, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. This is less than the current maximum Pell Grant amount of $6,345 for the 2020-21 year; this grant is awarded to undergraduate students who demonstrate exceptional financial need.

The low cost of community college can be particularly attractive to low-income families who are more likely to qualify for federal, state and local grant aid. However, it is not only low-income families that worry about the cost of higher education. In its How America Pays for College 2020 report, Sallie Mae found that around four out of five families (77%) eliminated a school from consideration because of the cost at some point in the decision process, and 38% of families report making their final decisions due to financial considerations.

Moreover, millions of Americans have been furloughed, laid off or seen a reduction in their hours or pay due to the COVID-19 crisis. An April 2020 Art & Science Group poll found that 52% of prospective college students surveyed had a parent or guardian who lost his or her job or had been furloughed. Current unemployment rates are the highest they have been since the Great Depression and analysts believe it may take years to recover.

Economically disadvantaged individuals are making up a larger proportion of the population every day. Now, more than ever, lost-cost higher education options are necessary and important.

Another particular advantage of community colleges is that many of them are designed for commuting students. That is, students can live at home with parents, thus eliminating the cost of room and board. Moreover, many community colleges are close to home and there is little need to travel long distances.

Some community colleges even have multiple campuses so students can choose the location that is closest to them. This is especially helpful for students who do not want to live in crowded college dormitories during a public health crisis.

Community colleges often have rolling admissions, and many of them have open admissions as well. Rolling admissions means the colleges evaluate applications as they come in, and there is usually no official deadline as to when prospective students need to apply. Generally, as long as students have applied, taken any appropriate placement tests and registered for classes by the start date, they are able to start the semester.

The only instances in which it becomes too late to apply to a school with rolling admissions is if the school has filled all the class spots for the coming semester. As far as community colleges go, this is rare, as many of these institutions are suited to adapt to larger-than-normal incoming classes. Open admissions usually means that admissions are not selective, and all applicants are admitted as long as they meet the application requirements.

These two admissions policies are helpful during the COVID-19 crisis since regular application deadlines for most four-year institutions have long since passed. As the crisis set in, financial distress for many people began in late March or early April, which is too late to make the decision to apply to schools that had application deadlines earlier in the year.

Schools that have rolling admissions are still accepting applications, and it is not too late to apply. Moreover, schools with open admissions policies practically guarantee admission, so prospective students do not need to spend time applying to more than one institution. This can also save money for prospective students applying to schools that charge one-time application fees.

While these various advantages of two-year schools are clear, it is also important to highlight the potential problem with online-only education and community colleges. Community colleges are predicted to be the likeliest to stay virtual in the upcoming fall semester because they generally rely less on revenue that comes from room and board, dining halls and sports. Unfortunately, many students are reluctant to enroll in any kind of higher education institution with the knowledge that all classes are going to be held online.

A May 2020 study from Carnegie Dartlet showed 33% of 2,800 college-bound high school seniors may defer or cancel their higher education plans if classes go fully online. At the time, three out of four students who had not yet committed to a school said they would be less likely to commit to one that did not have a set plan in place by the month that classes begin.

That said, community colleges are preparing across the country for spikes in applications and enrollments for the fall semester.

Community colleges are designed to be able to adapt to regional job market fluctuations and rapidly changing enrollment. They are able to work with local businesses to create relevant curricula to produce graduates that are best suited for the region’s labor market demands.

Data from the American Association of Community Colleges shows the greatest percentage of students (46.1%) beginning their postsecondary education at community colleges during the Great Recession in fall 2009. It is possible that the current economic instability coupled with a public health crisis will cause that percentage to be even greater.

Community colleges have also long been touted for helping students complete their general education and basic 100-level courses before transferring to a four-year institution to complete their bachelor’s degree. Many community colleges have special advisers and program recommendations for students who plan on transferring after one or two years.

At least 30 states have policies that guarantee students who earn an associate degree can transfer their credits to a four-year school and enroll as juniors. In addition, some schools have their own transfer agreements with four-year institutions in the surrounding areas that guarantee admissions if students maintain a certain GPA and meet basic requirements.

How do students who transfer to four-year institutions from community colleges fare compared with those who start at those schools? According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, for the fall 2010 cohort, 42% of students who transfer from a two-year to a four-year institution end up graduating with a bachelor’s degree within six years of starting in the community college. In comparison, per the National Center for Education Statistics, 60% who began higher education at a public four-year school graduated within six years.

However, traditionally, low-income students are more likely to enroll in community colleges than their higher-income peers. Of all students who enrolled in higher education in 2016, students in the lowest quintile socioeconomic status enrolled in community college at a rate of 51%, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. This is compared with only 18% of students from the highest quintile. Moreover, completion rates are higher among students who do not qualify for Pell Grants.

It is possible that the current public health crisis shifts the demographic split among students at community colleges to include more students from wealthier family backgrounds. This could indicate higher completion rates for the upcoming fall 2020 cohort of students.

It is clear that the higher education landscape is going to continue to change rapidly in the coming months. It’s possible to make some educated predictions about how it will change using current and historical data. But ever-changing federal and institutional policies may also change students’ impressions of their institutions, as well as their ability to make the best decisions about their education.

Overall, only time will reveal the true impacts of COVID-19 on colleges and universities, students and parents alike.

More from U.S. News

10 Reasons to Attend a Community College vs. University

Everything You Need to Know About Community Colleges: FAQ

10 Community College Degree Jobs That Pay $50K+

Advantages of Community Colleges During the Coronavirus Pandemic originally appeared on

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