Enrollment at Texas community colleges and universities will likely continue to plummet as more young people choose to enter the workforce instead of pursuing a degree, William Serrata, president of El Paso Community College, said during a Friday panel on higher education and the COVID-19 pandemic moderated by Texas Tribune higher education reporter Kate McGee.
“They're in the workforce, they're earning significantly higher wages than they normally would,” Serrata said. “I don't begrudge that at all. But those wages will come down, and I need them to come to ensure that they're planning for the future.”
Higher education institutions are trying to bring enrollment rates back up, said Cynthia Teniente-Matson, president of Texas A&M University-San Antonio, and Alisa White, president of Sam Houston State University in Huntsville. But they said students are less inclined to continue schooling because of attractive wages in the hospitality industry and the uncertainty around the learning environment due to the pandemic and changing public health measures.
“We are explaining the value of credentials, the value of certificates. We've been trying to work with employers, so that if [students] are working in a retail establishment, they also have an option of taking a course at A&M San Antonio, whether it's hybrid or in person or at night or online.” Teniente-Matson said. “What they find attractive now will not be attractive in three years and they will have lost that time. So it is a very complicated challenge.”
That has hurt enrollment at institutions like Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, where many students transfer from community colleges. Since the pandemic, the number of full-time, first-year students has gone up while the number of transfer students has gone down, White said.
Teniente-Matson said African American and Hispanic male students have not been enrolling in colleges at the same rate as in previous years. The gap in enrollment has been magnified by health and digital inequities during the pandemic, she added.
“Giving students a laptop or hotspot or MiFi – whatever it was – was not sufficient,” Teniente-Matson said. “Sure, they know how to use the device but they don't know how to learn with a device.”
In an effort to increase digital literacy, Texas A&M University-San Antonio launched a program during the pandemic that teaches students how to navigate online platforms like Blackboard and Jagwire, Teniente-Matson said.
As higher education institutions enter their third year in the pandemic, leaders say they will have to continue offering flexibility to their students. Serrata said students appreciate the flexibility of online classes, particularly those who are caregivers or have a job.
Before the pandemic, El Paso Community College held 92% of its classes in person. But like most learning institutions in 2020, they quickly had to move most of their classes to a digital setting. Even after the COVID-19 vaccine became widely accessible, the in-person attendance did not return to pre-pandemic levels. Last year, El Paso Community College held 55%of its classes in person.
“We will not get back to 92% of our courses face-to-face ever,” Serrata said. “From my perspective, we may get back to 70-75% of our courses face-to-face, but we'll have a significant amount of students who will choose to learn online who will feel that that's a better option for them.”
White said Sam Houston also prioritized giving students a choice between face-to-face and remote classes this academic year, and will continue to do so in the future. She said the university can now hire faculty and staff trained to offer virtual instruction.
When universities first pivoted to an online environment in March 2020, White said educators were scrambling to maintain the quality of their courses over video conferencing.
“Some people were not as attuned to using technology in the same way as others. And now everyone is trained on Zoom,” White said.
“Going forward, students are going to require us to continue to be flexible and so are employees, and now we know that we can,” she added. “We have to figure out, when is it absolutely necessary to have something face to face, or is hybrid the way to go in the future? And I think we have proven that it's possible to do so in a very quality environment.”
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