PHCC Reinvents Itself: Community College Adapts to Maintain Enrollment

By Amie Knowles

January 7, 2021

Despite a national decline in college attendance, a Virginia community college rises to the challenge.

MARTINSVILLE – How do you keep a community college afloat in a pandemic? For one southern Virginia operation, it meant reinventing the way they offered classes.

According to a preliminary Oct. 2020 report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, fall enrollment numbers took a nosedive. The study, in which 76% of colleges reported data, showed undergraduate rates dropped by 4.4% compared to the same period in 2019.

While a decrease under 5% might not appear that significant, it is. In 2019, approximately 19.9 million students signed up for fall college courses in the United States. Using 76% of colleges reporting their fall 2020 numbers, that’s somewhere around 15,124,000 students for the baseline. Out of those 15.1 million, a 4.4% decrease accounts for about 665,456 students not returning to class.

If the same trend continued for all 19.9 million students accounted for in the 2019 fall semester, then approximately 836,000 students did not return to campus.

PHCC Numbers Tell a Story

While the national numbers are staggering, the local numbers in the Martinsville-Henry County area also took a dip.

At Patrick Henry Community College, the school experienced less of an enrollment drop than they expected due to COVID-19. However, the numbers still didn’t add up to the year prior.

“Due to the national trends, PHCC predicted a shortfall of 14% for the 2020 fiscal year. We were pleased that our actual shortfall was just over 9%. While that is a large drop, it is actually slightly below the 10% national decline for community colleges,” said Amanda Broome, PHCC’s communications specialist. “It’s never a good thing to have a shortfall, of course, but having better numbers than we predicted is a win.”

The numbers for spring 2021 are not final yet, Broome pointed out. Even though classes started on January 7, the school always picks up a few latecomers during the first week.

“Looking at the data thus far, however, it looks like we’ll have a number similar to fall 2020,” Broome said. “So, in a nutshell, the pandemic absolutely did impact the number of students going to college at PHCC, but not nearly as badly as we feared it might.”

Offering hybrid in-person and online courses in the fall 2020 and spring 2021 semesters, students at PHCC have options.

A preemptive plan

The college’s numbers likely didn’t reach the level they projected because school leaders had a proactive approach.

First, the college reworked many of their course offerings. PHCC developed unique solutions for each class according to room capacity, the number of students in the course, the hands-on nature and the remote-teaching capability of the lesson material.

“Patrick Henry Community College has offered a robust distance learning program for years with more than half of our students opting for at least one distance learning class per semester prior to the pandemic,” said Greg Hodges, vice president of academic and student success services. “We are now in a situation where about two-thirds of our courses are delivered via distance learning while the other third are delivered in some combination of on-campus and virtual.”

Broome noted that some of the courses were more difficult to transition online than others. Programs with hands-on components like welding, nursing and machining require certain tools and observations that are not always possible online.

Combating the issue, the college converted a large exhibit hall into a classroom. PHCC also split larger in-person classes into smaller groups that go to school on alternate days and times.

“It is important to note that even in disciplines that tend to be more hands on, our faculty have transitioned elements of instruction to remote learning, thereby lessening the time that students must be on campus,” Hodges said. “There are very few courses now where 100% of the content must be delivered face-to-face. Likewise, our faculty have also expanded the use of technology – Zoom, virtual office hours, Go-Pros, etcetera – to create interaction and connections within the online environment. In short, we are doing everything we can to meet the needs of our students.”

Enrollment demographics

In the 76% of colleges reporting their fall 2020 numbers, the study revealed a 16.1% decrease of college freshmen.

PHCC reported a different finding on their campus.

“Our biggest enrollment decline – which actually started before COVID and has been exacerbated since – has been with non-traditional part-time students, [that is] students who are over 25 and taking less than 12 credits,” Hodges said. “This really should not come as a surprise. Usually, these part-time students were already juggling jobs, family responsibilities, childcare, etcetera and now adding COVID to the mix has simply become too much for some of these students.”

New ideas

Despite the pandemic, PHCC launched new classes, series and programs in 2020 and 2021.

“We recently added a diversity and inclusion training series and a seminar series on managing [and] leading a team through all the changes and challenges of the pandemic. [And] we also have a few classes that can help small business owners maximize online tools – like social media and YouTube – to reach their target audiences. We have a social media class for anyone who is new to the space, but is hoping to connect with loved ones virtually; the class will include a lesson on using Zoom. These are all professional development courses for the community,” Broome said. “However, we also recently added a Heavy Equipment Operator program as well.”

The Heavy Equipment Operator program kicks off on Jan. 19. The course teaches heavy equipment safety, basic operational techniques, the basics of earth-moving and how to interpret civil drawings.

The entire program takes four months, from start to finish. Once students complete the coursework, they have the skills needed to operate excavators, wheel loader equipment and additional large machinery.

An encouraging word

Broome said she wished that she could speak with every person who decided against perusing college during the pandemic.

The communications specialist encouraged considering reasons to continue or begin one’s postsecondary education.

“If finances are worrisome, we have scholarships and grants. If the uncertainty of the economy is holding you back, consider this: the jobs that are going away the fastest are the jobs that don’t require a college degree. The best way to secure a better future for yourself during times of economic uncertainty is to equip yourself with the credentials that employers value,” Broome said. “Degrees and certifications can increase both job security and employability. Not having a college degree is an incredible risk in these uncertain times.”

She also spoke about the steps PHCC took to keep the college safe during the COVID-19 health crisis.

“If you’re concerned about the safety of campus during a pandemic, there are many online-only options. Additionally, we are doing everything in our power to create a clean and safe learning environment,” Broome said. “As much as we can, we try to eliminate barriers to education – especially now as the economic woes of the pandemic and the lockdowns have underscored just how valuable credentials can be.”

Amie Knowles reports for Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected]

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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