The COVID pandemic has changed our lives in many ways, some predictable, some not.

Put the national decline in college enrollment in the second category.

Southern Maine Community College’s fall enrollment is down 6.1 percent from the same time last year. The broader Maine Community College System has had a 13.4 percent decline since the fall of 2019. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, undergraduate enrollment was down 3.2 percent last month when compared to October 2020. That follows a 3.5 percent drop over the previous year.

You see similar declines in Maine. The University of Maine System has seen a nearly 5 percent decline in enrollment over the two-year period, and the trend is even worse for the Maine Community College System, which has seen a 13.4 percent decline since the start of the academic year that began in fall 2019.

The decision of when – or whether – to attend college is a personal one, and involves a wide range of factors that are weighed by individuals and their families. But it also can become a statewide economic concern if so many people choose not to pursue a degree and there aren’t enough skilled workers to fill important jobs in the near future. Steep declines in college enrollment two years in a row poses an important public policy question for the state Legislature and the Mills administration: What is causing this trend and what can be done to reverse it?

The fact that the community colleges are seeing the steepest decline should set off the loudest alarm.

Community colleges tend to serve low-income and non-traditional students who are juggling continuing education with work and family responsibilities. These are people who stand to gain long-term economic effects from finishing college, but face the most immediate pressure to leave school.

The economic disruption of the COVID pandemic is adding to that in a number of ways.

Some people are staying home because they don’t want to risk catching the virus, getting sick themselves or transmitting it to a vulnerable member of their household. There are also people who can’t find reliable and affordable child care that would let them go to school.

And there appears to be a third reason that that doesn’t involve either of those pressures.

The tight labor market is leading some employers to increase wages, and potential students are choosing to work instead of study.

For someone who has been struggling financially, a $20-an-hour job looks too good to turn down, said Maine Community College System President David Daigler. But that decision has a long-term impact.

“It’s a loss for the economy because they don’t have the skills to advance,” he told reporter Rachel Ohm. “That $20-an-hour job doesn’t lead to a $22-an-hour job and then a $25-an-hour job.”

A post-secondary degree does help people advance and that is good not only for them, but for the whole community. Businesses can’t expand without a pool of qualified people and public agencies can’t deliver vital services.

Overcoming COVID is going to take more than stopping the spread of the virus; it’s also going to involve undoing the economic upheaval that has been caused.

Helping people find a way to stay in college is a long-term investment in the state’s future, and this trend of dropping enrollment should not be allowed to continue.


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