As It Slowly Recovers Enrollment, PCC Rethinks Recruitment, Purpose

Sept. 6, 2022

Sep. 6—Enrollment is slowly climbing as Pima Community College starts its third full school year after the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Between 2016 and 2021, the college experienced a 25% drop in enrollment; about 20% of that drop came between 2019 and 2021. But as school started back late last month, signs of a possible rebound came with it.

Preliminary numbers show 17,407 students are going to PCC this year, a 6.5% increase in the total number of students enrolled on the first day of this fall semester compared to last year.

"Our goal is to recover some of that loss (in enrollment), but I also realize I have to be realistic," PCC Chancellor Lee Lambert said in an interview with the Arizona Daily Star.

But PCC is not experiencing its enrollment struggles in isolation.

Nationally, community college enrollment — which includes a high population of nontraditional students who are often juggling school, work and family responsibilities — continues to lag as the higher education sector the pandemic has hit hardest.

Between the spring of 2020 and 2021, enrollment at all public two-year colleges dropped by 9.5%, according to a report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. In spring of 2022, nationwide community college enrollment was down 7.8% compared to 2021.

21st century PCC

Pandemic aside, Lambert said that in his view, other external factors like competition from online colleges, decent paying jobs that don't require any education, and employers offering their own certificate programs are also making community colleges like Pima a harder sell.

To combat those factors, Lambert wants to take the college's enrollment strategy "into the 21st century."

To him, that includes both retaining the critical thinking piece at the core of a liberal arts education and rebranding PCC as an institution that offers much more than the traditional track of taking lecture-style courses for two years before transferring to a four-year university.

"That model is quickly going away," Lambert said. He wants people to think of PCC as a community hub where anyone seeking self-enrichment should feel welcome to pursue non-degree-seeking courses, short-term vocational certificates or an associate's degree — and expect more project-based, experiential learning to reach their goals.

"If we're a little more strategic, I think we can hold the line and maybe grow some," he said. "We can attract folks who maybe never thought about going to college and give them options to make it easier to come here."

Over the past few years, the college has employed numerous recruitment and retention strategies. For one, it cleared a total of $2.7 million worth of outstanding balances for 4,500 students last fall, which made those students eligible to sign up for classes again.

"That helped some folks, but not all," Lambert said.

Other enrollment strategies have included offering free student success courses, opening an on-campus child care center, targeted marketing, increased flexible course formats, outreach to potential students and offering affordable pathways to in-demand technical careers through the Centers of Excellence. That's Lambert's signature career and technical education training initiative which is set to be completed within the next two years.

As a result, PCC saw the biggest enrollment jumps in liberal arts, applied technology and health professions courses this year.


Christie Monreal was one of five people PCC hired last spring to ramp up recruitment of 18- to 24-year-olds, a demographic that saw a 10% increase in enrollment this year compared to last year.

She spent her summer working with local high schools trying to track down recent high school graduates who may not be aware of PCC's wide range of options that could help them build a career.

"We called them, emailed them and invited them to our Super Saturday events where they can just walk in and do everything they need to register," Monreal said.

Her pitch to those students often includes telling them about PCC's smaller class sizes and less overwhelming environment compared to a larger four-year school like the University of Arizona.

"We had students with questions, some who graduated in 2020 and 2021 who started working but want to come back to school now," she said. "We made sure to let them know we are here for them."

Current high schoolers are also a major target of PCC's recruitment efforts.

In addition to encouraging seniors to transition to PCC after graduation, the college has also expanded its options for students to experience college free of charge through its dual enrollment.

Dual enrollment

Although dual enrolled students — that means they're earning college credit by taking PCC courses on their high school campus — don't count toward the college's total enrollment numbers, the program still goes a long way in exposing students to what higher education is really like before they have to find a way to pay for it.

Romina Perez is a senior at Sunnyside High School who expects to have around 22 college credits from dual enrollment by the time she graduates. Neither of her parents went to college, so being able to learn how to manage her time and study at the level college courses require while still in high school has given her extra preparation.

"It takes the pressure off. It's convenient and it's made me a lot more confident," Perez said. Plus, she added, "I've had everyone tell me I'm saving a lot of money."

Thanks to a new partnership between her high school and PCC, she's on track to graduate from high school as a certified emergency medical technician. She spent some of her Thursday afternoon practicing life-saving techniques on a dummy in a simulated ambulance PCC paid to put in the high school classroom last year.

Those kind of dual enrollment offerings are attracting more students, some of whom may choose to continue on at PCC after high school. Compared to this time last year, the number of high school students dual enrolled at the college has increased 62%.

Nathan Grawe, a professor of economics at Carleton College who studies college enrollment, said only time will tell if PCC — or any community college — will be able to recover pre-pandemic enrollment levels.

But what he does know right now is there's a national conversation brewing about what higher education — and specifically community colleges — should look like.

"While most two-year college students say their goal is to get a four-year degree, the vast majority of them in the recent past have not done so," said Grawe. He estimates only about one-eighth of community college students will actually obtain a bachelor's degree within six years.

"For a student who wants to be an airline mechanic, there's a real question about why we should be pushing them to get a liberal arts degree. What they need is training in a trade and then a job," he said. Moving in the direction PCC is and "recognizing the potential for higher education to offer many different paths for the many different needs of students I think is wise."

Kathryn Palmer covers higher education for the Arizona Daily Star. Contact her via e-mail at [email protected] or her new phone number, 520-496-9010.


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