Community colleges often are not appreciated enough for what they contribute to the educational landscape.

Students don’t sweat bullets over whether they get in. They decide to get the education and sign up.

These are the reliable schools. There are no frat parties or football games. Just the classes that are going to move a student closer to the degree needed or the job wanted. If Pitt and Penn State are show ponies with pretty ribbons, community colleges are workhorses who just get the job done.

Generally, an economic upheaval means that more people gravitate toward community colleges. They are dramatically less expensive than most four-year colleges and are close to home. They offer exactly the kind of classes many people need without requiring unnecessary frills.

So what happened this time?

Though Pennsylvania and the rest of the country still is fighting back from the economic downturn of the coronavirus pandemic, community colleges didn’t see the typical upturn they expect.

Nationally, enrollment was down 10.1% for fall 2020 compared to fall 2019. The Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges reported enrollment down 13.4% for spring 2021 compared to the same period in 2020.

Community colleges actually suffered more than their four-year counterparts. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported public colleges dropped by 4% — which seems smaller, but represents 70% of enrollment.

So does this mean community colleges are down and out? Not at all. Community colleges are more flexible than big schools. They can take this opportunity to identify better what is needed and pivot to provide that.

Area community colleges already have taken those steps. They have responded to the needs of students. They have adapted with online opportunities, livestreaming and other ways to meet students in a new virtual world.

Now it has to be up to students to take advantage of those opportunities. That seems likely to happen, too. Summer numbers at CCAC are already up by 22.85%. While enrollments at community colleges did dip, it just might point to smart decision-making from people who waited out an unsteady period to see what would happen next.

Why spend money to learn a certain trade when so many are in flux? What industries could be changed — short term or long — by the pandemic’s effect on various industries? Prudent students may have decided to wait to make a choice.

But community colleges fill another void. Parents and educators have pondered how kids in elementary through high school would rebound after the last year of pingponging between closed and opened and virtual schooling. Are they behind? Are they prepared? What did they need over the last year that they didn’t get?

Community colleges always have been overlooked and underutilized when they were there, nose to the grindstone. Now they might be providing what is critically needed — and that will have to be recognized and supported.

— The Tribune-Review, Greensburg/TNS

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