The COVID-19 pandemic has led to historic declines in the number of students attending college.

Hardest hit, according to the National Student Clearinghouse, were two-year colleges, such as Oakton Community College, which has campuses in Skokie and Des Plaines.

The Clearinghouse, an agency that monitors enrollment, says for all types of colleges, there was a 600,000 student drop nationwide (3.5%) this spring versus the same period last year. That reduction, from 17.5 million last year to 16.9 million this year, was “seven times worse than the decline one year earlier,” the Clearinghouse says.

Community colleges saw the steepest decline, with a drop of 9.5%. In fact, the Clearinghouse says two-thirds of the total reduction came from two-year schools.

Oakton has data from 2019 and 2020, so the comparison is slightly different than what the Clearinghouse provides, however Oakton spokesperson Steve Butera says, “we did see the same trend.”

Oakton saw a combined two-campus decline of 7.5% between pre-COVID fall, 2019 and fall, 2020 when the pandemic was in full force and classes were virtual. (7,562 students to 7,071).

“We heard from students and surmised that some did not find it viable to learn in a virtual manner,” Butera says.

Many of the students who left, Butera adds, likely had “financial or family impact” due to the coronavirus pandemic. The need to care for children or elderly relatives at home made it impossible to do schoolwork at the same time.

Skokie residents who attended Oakton had a larger enrollment decrease (12.5%) than did those who live in Evanston (3.5%).

Butera says Oakton expects more students to re-enroll this fall as the number of in-person courses increases.

Oakton is also introducing some new, short-term certificate programs which should also lead to more people attending.

“We’re here for students when they’re ready to return,” Butera says.

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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