SCCC: Pandemic Lowers Enrollment of County Residents

Joe Denoyer - October 2, 2020 10:20 am

By Rachel Coleman


LIBERAL, Kan. — Numbers released by the Kansas Board of Regents show Seward County Community College enrollment down by 15 percent as colleges and universities across the state grapple with COVID-19. Locally, more than half the decrease — 163 fewer students — can be traced to Seward County residents who did not enroll or re-enroll for the 2020-21 academic year. In a county that regularly claimed a place on national “hot spot” lists as the pandemic intensified, that’s not a surprise, noted SCCC data analyst Teresa Wehmeier.

“There’s a lot of factors and every one of them is connected to the impact of the pandemic,” she said. As a member of the college’s CARES funding distribution team, Wehmeier and her colleagues witnessed a cascade of challenges. 

“We were hearing from students who said, ‘My folks got laid off, and I have to go to work,’ students who were trying to do homework on their phones because there was one computer in the house and four people who needed to use it. Housing, technology, Internet access, even food struggles because all the kids are home from school,” she recounted. “I’m guessing a lot of those problems carried over into fall.”

“Kansas community colleges typically serve students who face greater barriers to higher education, which were magnified by the pandemic,” noted Heather Morgan, executive director of the Kansas Association of Community Colleges. “In addition to the economic hardships being experienced by many Kansans, the disruption of K-12 education last spring and this fall hindered the assistance students would have normally received to enroll in fall classes, dual-credit classes, and/or SB 155-Excel in CTE technical education classes.”

At SCCC, concurrent high school student enrollment was delayed because of the spring shutdowns at the 11 outreach high schools in the SCCC service area. Even so, noted SCCC Dean of Enrollment and Student Success Annette Hackbarth-Onson, “we have seen those high school students show up to class, and engage in the online options we are providing in addition to face-to-face teaching.” 

Another bright spot is the increase in transfer students who opted to enroll at SCCC this fall rather than their original institutions: that number increased by 10 percent, to 103 students. Instructors overall have reported that SCCC students are glad to be back in class with peers, even with social distancing measures in place. 

“This semester doesn’t look like other semesters, but we are focused on doing more than ‘just getting through it’ and actually thriving,” said SCCC Vice President of Academic Affairs Luke Dowell. In some cases, he noted, that has meant moving classes to unusual venues like the humanities division showcase theater, which now serves as a science lecture hall in order to seat students six feet apart. 

Using its SCCC COVID-19 Response Playbook, mandatory mask wear, social distancing, and close consultation with the Seward County Health Department, the college has been able to operate through the first half of the semester without reported viral spread on campus, an impressive achievement in light of an increase in local and area case numbers overall. 

“We have tracked fewer than 25 cases of positive COVID-19 tests among our Saints community since March, and none of those have originated on campus,” said SCCC’s vice president of student services and COVID response team leader Celeste Donovan. 

In addition to student and team member health, SCCC has focused intently on adjusting academic delivery to the new requirements dictated by the pandemic. Faculty members completed professional development over the summer to increase their skills in online education delivery and planned for intentionally-designed online courses in contrast to the emergency remote instruction used to close out the previous spring. 

Dowell emphasized the importance of careful preparation so that the college’s core values of integrity, quality and student success are maintained. 

“We’re looking ahead to the period after Thanksgiving break, when we will offer our students the option of completing the semester completely through remote learning if they wish,” said Dowell. “At this time, we do not anticipate requiring online-only access, but we are asking all instructors to be prepared to conduct the last week of classes and our finals the following week in both modes.”

The ability to continue offering courses in person reflects the college’s mindful adherence to CDC-recommended practices, said Hackbarth-Onson. 

“It’s not easy for our students to maintain social distancing, as those connections and relationships are so important to young adults,” she said. “I’ve been impressed by their willingness to choose safety and community well-being, and I’m grateful that our efforts appear to be working.”

That positive perspective is great for the community as well, said Morgan. 

“During economic downturns, the Kansas community college system has always been a key component of the economic recovery through training, re-training, and up-skilling employees to ensure they are able to return to the workforce swiftly,” she pointed out. “Community colleges look forward to working with Kansas policymakers, industry leaders, and our secondary education partners to ensure students understand the value of higher education, and how the education and training they receive is critical to being able to fill open jobs.”

SCCC, which has tracked enrollment and demographic trends and economic impact closely over the past five years, modified its budget in anticipation of various funding decreases. That foresight, along with federal and state funding disbursements for pandemic response, has provided the college with financial stability. At the same time, said incoming president Brad Bennett, “we are excited to increase marketing initiatives and the opportunity to be more creative.” Bennett will begin work on the SCCC campus Oct. 12.

As a key part of the regional economy, SCCC stands ready to assist students to ensure they receive the education or training they need to provide a prosperous future for themselves, their families, and the state of Kansas.

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