Illinois community college enrollment plummets from pandemic, online classes

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Jaleel Harris is one of the few students physically on campus at South Holland's Suburban College these days, and that's mostly because he has a job there.

"It's been challenging," Harris said. "It's not what I'm used to."

Enrollment at Illinois' community colleges has plummeted compared to 2020, due to the pandemic and most being taught online.

"This spring we're down approximately 23%, which is a big hit for us," said Debbie King of South Suburban College.

While the same is true of colleges and universities across the country, Illinois has been particularly hard hit, and specifically community colleges, more so than 4-year institutions. Joliet Junior College is down 14%.

"We offer a lot of programs that are hands on. That require that face to face interaction. Those labs. The automotive program. The welding program. The culinary program," said Robert Morris of Joliet Junior College.

It is also not a coincidence that the biggest enrollment declines have taken place in colleges that are located in minority-heavy communities that have been devastated by the pandemic.

"People are just trying to move forward day to day. They're not thinking what they're going to do 6 months down the line in terms of education. They had to meet immediate needs first," King said.

In hopes of reversing the trend, Illinois launched the Workforce Equality Initiative that offers state community colleges grants that cover all expenses for students enrolling in programs where real-world demand is currently highest, which runs the gamut from barber school to certified nursing assistant degrees.

Harris, a business major, has had a tough year, but he said things are getting better.

"I did see a nice amount of people go, but I would say I see them coming back as well," he said.

Area-wide, only two community colleges saw enrollment increases this spring: McHenry County College and Malcom X, one of the City Colleges of Chicago.
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