Pandemic changes enrollment trends at TRC

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

While spring enrollment for Three Rivers College is trending about the same as it was last year, where those students are taking classes has dramatically changed.

Dr. Wesley Payne, president, said the total enrollment is down about 3% as of Friday from where it was at the same time last year, with one week to go before it closes. By Tuesday, it was down 1.95% from the same time last year.

While the pandemic hasn’t changed enrollment numbers very much, he said, it has “created a massive change in how they’re taking classes.”

Before, about 25% of credit hours were taken online, he said.

Looking at the spring semester, about 47.5% are online, and the number of students enrolled in only online classes increased by 33.7%.

TRC launched 12 fully online Associates of Art programs in the fall, which have pathways to four-year programs at various universities.

Payne said the college was planning a soft launch of those programs, without very much promotion, to see how things went. However, the pandemic showed more of a need for them.

“It was a huge shift in the way students take classes,” Payne said.

“What we’re seeing from the pandemic is the decline in enrollment is relatively minor, but the shift in what classes they’re taking is a significant change.”

As of Tuesday, 2,190 students were signed up for 24,005 credit hours. At the same point in registration last year, 2,3429 students were signed up for 22,450 credit hours.

That 3% is an improvement over the first week of registration, Payne said. The difference was closer to 12%, when looking at the same time last year.

This is different compared to what enrollment trends were before the COVID-19 pandemic, he explained.

“What we’re seeing is a downward enrollment pressure, and they are waiting longer to register,” Payne said. “Before the pandemic, we were showing a trend where they were registering earlier and earlier.”

When talking to presidents at other colleges, and other people locally, Payne said, it seems as though the anxieties stemming from the pandemic are causing or contributing to students registering later than they were before.

Traditionally, over the years, colleges and particularly two-year colleges, see an increase in enrollment during recessions and hard economic times, Payne said. However, that hasn’t been the case at TRC this time around. Normally, those who enroll in classes during economic troubles, he continued, are looking for the extra skills or training to help with their job searches.

“Nobody looked at this, I believe, as a structural layoff,” he said. “This was a pandemic, they were thinking ‘I lost my job because of the pandemic. This is not long term. I’ve got this money from federal unemployment. I’ll get my job back after the pandemic is under control.’

“The combination of the government aid plus the external shock of the pandemic didn’t drive people to education because they lost their job.”

The college did see differences in the enrollment process, he said.

For summer and fall enrollment last year, Payne said, TRC had to utilize virtual advising for students.

While this is something other colleges had been using before, TRC had been hesitant to implement it, he explained.

There wasn’t another option at that point though. The college offered in-person advising for spring enrollment along with virtual, he said. While most students still used the in-person option, some relied on virtual.

While that area is something Payne said administration plans to study more, he expects the option will stick around.

“Virtual advising is not going to be satisfactory for every student because some students want that face-to-face experience,” Payne said. “But, I think for a lot of our new students coming out of high school and coming in who are used to dealing with computers and used to dealing with FaceTime calls, they will adopt this as we go along.

“Maybe not their first semester, but maybe their second. ‘My first shot at it, I want to be there so I feel more comfortable.’ I think these are things that are going to stick around.”

Enrollment closes Friday.