In a year when the COVID-19 pandemic impacted enrollment declines at colleges nationwide, community colleges experienced the biggest drop. Nationwide, community college enrollments dipped by 7.5 percent, according to preliminary data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. With all Connecticut community college classes online, coupled with the heavy economic and public health toll COVID-19 has had on people of color, community colleges in the state expected fewer enrollments.  

Reflecting that trend, a lower percentage of students served by the ALL IN! Coalition’s Summer Transition program started college this fall than in previous years. However, we learned from past challenges and made modifications, and as a result, the total number of students served jumped. Formerly called the Summer Melt Action Team during its pilot phase, the program just completed its fourth year. It evolved into the Summer Transition Initiative and is led by Achieve Hartford’s director of programs.

The uptick in the number of Hartford students who were part of the Summer Transition cohort enrolled in either Capital Community College (CCC) or Manchester Community College (MCC) – 104 this year compared to 70 last year – can be credited to an agreement between CCC and MCC and Achieve Hartford. This spring, CCC and MCC staff provided Achieve Hartford staff with the names of Hartford Public Schools (HPS) class of 2020 graduates who had been accepted for the fall 2020, as well as the names of some students who had applied. This resulted in the largest cohort since the program began – 320 compared to last year’s 200.

In past years, Achieve Hartford relied on HPS guidance counselors to provide the names and contact information of students who planned to attend one of several Hartford-area colleges, including private and public four-year colleges and community colleges.

Historically, more HPS grads attend CCC and MCC than any other colleges in the state, so this year we concentrated on serving those students exclusively. We entered into a memorandum of understanding with CCC and MCC, and their staffs gave our staff the names of prospective students while they were still in high school.

Through the Summer Transition program, we reached out to those seniors to offer the support of an Outreach Specialist to help them complete the matriculation process through the summer. With help recruiting potential staff from our community college partners, we hire and train Outreach Specialists who help HPS graduates navigate the many steps toward starting college, including filling out financial aid forms and registering for classes.

“Given all the challenges of trying to connect with students during a pandemic when they were not physically in school, we consider a 54 percent engagement rate a success,” says Paul Diego Holzer, executive director of Achieve Hartford.

While the 33 percent enrollment in college represents a dip from last year’s enrollment rate of 38 percent, all evidence suggests the COVID-19 pandemic plays a role, Holzer says. At CCC and MCC, overall registrations this fall fell by double digits. Traditionally, minority and low-income students compromise a large percentage of community colleges’ student population.

We cannot yet confirm how many of the students out of the 320-student cohort enrolled at other institutions, though some told the Outreach Specialists they planned to enroll elsewhere.

This year, the state’s community colleges offered free tuition to full-time students who met a series of income, citizenship and residency requirements. Some HPS graduates told the Outreach Specialists that they were postponing the start of college until classes were held in person, until they could improve their English literacy or, if they lacked U.S. citizenship, until they could earn the money for tuition.