In January of 2020, Dominick Jackson enrolled in Metropolitan State University of Denver in hopes of getting a degree and advancing his long-term goals.
“I was enrolled, I was getting my bearings, and then the pandemic hit,” said Jackson.
Jackson was suddenly faced with a choice between dropping classes, or losing a job. He wasn’t alone. MSU Denver saw a 6.2% decline in enrollment in the 2020-2021 academic year from the previous year.
The enrollment decline has disproportionately affected students of color, first-generation students, and low-income students. Colorado’s Community College system saw a 14% drop in enrollment among first-generation students, and an 11% drop among black students.
Joe Garcia, chancellor for the Colorado Community College system, said the numbers make sense, given the uneven impact of the pandemic.
“About half of all students of color in Colorado who go on to college come to community colleges, so we serve the population that was also the hardest hit by the pandemic,” Garcia said.
Garcia is concerned that these students dropped out of college at a time when college could help them the most.
“A lot of those students lost their jobs and frankly they’re not getting them back. They were service industry, tourism jobs,” Garcia said.
He said college can provide new skills and training for students to get a better job post-pandemic.
Mary Sauceda, associate vice president of enrollment management at MSU Denver, echoed that sentiment.
“The data shows that degrees in higher education translate to higher income, more civic engagement, more likely to vote, more likely to have good health, wellness, home ownership,” Sauceda said.
MSU Denver has been looking for ways to close the college attainment gap for students of color, including asking the state for an additional $50 million over five years. That money could help students overcome barriers to attending college. Sauceda said nearly half of students at MSU Denver are students of color, and many are also parents, and work multiple jobs.
“We’re the secon-most affordable institution in the state and the most affordable on the Front Range, but students still have basic needs they need to take care of,” Sauceda said.
Garcia said community colleges are starting to address these needs as well.
“We have to provide services that colleges never had to consider. We have to provide food pantries, mental health counseling. We have to help connect them to other government services they may need to allow them to continue (school),” he said.
For Jackson, the choice to stay in school wasn’t a difficult one, even though it meant leaving a job. He’s pursuing a communication degree, and working to start an after-school music program. He encouraged his fellow students who are facing challenges to not give up.
“Even in a pandemic, every day can get better,” he said.