One of Ian McKeown's favorite assignments last spring was to go to the grocery store, buy some wine, make a meal and write about it. Like many culinary students around the country, McKeown suddenly found himself baking and butchering in his home kitchen instead of the commercial kitchen on campus — which in his case was at Wake Technical Community College, in North Carolina.
When classes shifted online in March due to the pandemic, Wake Tech's culinary arts faculty put together packages of ingredients for students to pick up. Students could also borrow utensils they didn't have at home.
McKeown watched recorded video lectures of his instructors preparing dishes before trying them on his own. "Time with my professors was the biggest loss for me, because you're not performing the task in front of them. And you also don't get to watch them do it first," McKeown said. Despite having the videos, "it's kind of hard to visualize what the final product is supposed to be."
While McKeown was able to continue his culinary classes online, many students in hands-on programs opted to take a break from their education — or didn't pursue it at all. Data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center showed public two-year colleges enrolled 544,200 fewer students in fall 2020 — a 10% decrease from the previous year. The drop was even more acute among first-time students, at 21%.
Some programs fared better than others in terms of enrollment, but many of those most impacted were in hands-on disciplines. Visual and performing arts, law enforcement, firefighting, engineering technologies, mechanic and repair technologies, and communication technologies were among the undergraduate majors with the biggest drops at two-year colleges, according to the Clearinghouse. Enrollment in culinary services, precision production and the physical sciences all decreased by more than 17%.
When the pandemic forced classes online, some career and technical (CTE) programs replaced in-person training with virtual simulations. Others offered in-person labs with fewer students and stringent coronavirus safety protocols. But many colleges had to suspend or significantly modify programs that could not be easily adapted.
Wake Tech found ways to use aspects of online education in all its programs. "But that only goes so far," said Scott Ralls, its president. "Our baking and pastry program has been pretty imaginative in that regard, but we have a lot of programs that only have a certain component that can be done in a synchronous lecture format, and so they have to get back into shops and labs."
Enrollment strain in hands-on programs
Social distancing protocols have been the biggest impediment to Wake Tech's ability to offer some of its hands-on CTE programs, Ralls said. Although enrollment is down only slightly, capacity constraints caused by COVID-19 safety protocols have restricted how many students some programs, such as dental hygiene, can admit because they require in-person attendance.
"We are not able to serve as many students as we can in a normal year," he said.
Katrina VanderWoude, president of Los Angeles Trade-Technical College, said many of the school's CTE students had completed a significant amount of in-person training before the pandemic hit and were mostly able to finish courses through virtual simulations.
Other courses, such as welding, carpentry and nursing, as well as a powerline mechanic training program, were suspended in the spring while the college came up with protocols for sanitation and social distancing. The areas most impacted were those in which students must demonstrate their skills in person, VanderWoude said.
Bringing those courses back required LATTC officials to get creative. For instance, they had to come up with a protocol for sanitizing the poles in the yard where students in the powerline program trained, a process that included the use of sprayers and special solutions, she said.
Jennifer Bradley, vice president of academic affairs at Kirkwood Community College, in Iowa, said the average overall enrollment at her institution is down more in liberal arts transfer programs (15%) than in CTE (4%).
Kirkwood's agricultural sciences program experienced the biggest drop in enrollment with a 21% decrease this spring. Bradley said that is because the program normally recruits students from other states.
Culinary arts enrollment was down 10% in fall 2020, which Bradley attributes to a drop-off in first-time students and uncertainty about future employment in the restaurant industry. Kirkwood is operating its commercial kitchens at half capacity so students can socially distance. "We didn't turn students away," Bradley said. "But the capacity that we have is full."
She added that students in allied health and dental programs were delayed in finishing their programs due to a lack of clinical placements. Faculty front-loaded nonclinical coursework with the expectation students would complete their clinical training at the end of the program, Bradley said. Most students finished their hands-on training during the summer, but a few had to delay their graduation by a semester.
The enrollment decreases are having an impact. Kirkwood offset lost tuition revenue with reserve funds to cover its operating expenses. Bradley doesn't yet know how enrollment will shape up next year. Having fewer students would be a concern because tuition and fees account for 58% of Kirkwood's budget. But the institution's good financial health means there are no plans yet to change its offerings, Bradley said.
Madison Area Technical College, in Wisconsin, extended some of its hands-on spring semester classes into the summer so students could complete their programs, said Turina Bakken, provost and executive vice president of academic affairs.
For example, students in the school's urban forestry — or tree trimming — program couldn't access job sites until late summer because of COVID-19.
Overall enrollment at Madison was down around 12% this fall. But its biotechnology program was down nearly 40%, while manufacturing, transportation and construction were each down by about a quarter. Meanwhile, enrollment grew in programs covering disciplines such as information technology, marketing, human services, respiratory therapy, medical administration and nursing assistantships.
The biggest enrollment hit Madison has taken is a decline in 18- to 22-year-olds, who make up around one-third of its student body, said Meghan Conlin, a senior adviser. "The idea of having a more regular college experience in a couple years, I think is compelling to a lot of them," she said.
While enrollment has declined at most community colleges across the U.S., some have seen their CTE numbers increase, said Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations for the American Association of Community Colleges.
College leaders have also worked with local municipalities and governing agencies to receive special dispensation to continue programs that were filling regional workforce pipelines or maintaining infrastructure, Parham said. This has been common in disciplines such as nursing and allied health.
At Wake Tech, college officials worked with a state agency that had never allowed basic law enforcement training online, to offer some classes virtually, Ralls said — a first for the program.
Clark State Community College, in Ohio, is among the schools to buck national trends. Enrollment there rose about 5% in manufacturing and welding due to strong local demand for jobs in aerospace and automobile manufacturing, said its president, Jo Alice Blondin. The college has also seen enrollment increase in its policing, firefighting and emergency medical services programs.
"I think faculty have realized what has to be in person, hands-on, and what they actually can do in a more supportive way in a remote environment."
Provost and executive vice president of academic affairs, Madison Area Technical College
Total enrollment at Clark State was down around 2% in fall 2020. While enrollment in some CTE programs was up, the college saw a 7% decrease in general associate degrees designed for students who want to transfer to a four-year school. That may be because CTE programs often have a work experience component that incentivizes students to enroll, Blondin said.
Clark State wasn't as hard hit as other colleges, Blondin said, because around 40% of its classes were online pre-pandemic and most faculty had been trained to teach remotely. It also already implemented virtual reality training for welding and manufacturing that avoids having to use heavy machinery.
Disciplines such as welding and industrial maintenance already had stringent health and safety protocols in place because of the nature of the work. "Our labs have all been designed with physical distancing in mind for safety anyway," Blondin said.
Welding, for instance, requires heavy-duty protective gear and the work happens in separate kilns. "They're already wearing face shields even when we don't have public health concerns," said LATTC's VanderWoude.
Despite the challenges of the last year, community college leaders say the incorporation of virtual elements in response to the pandemic has made their hands-on programs more robust.
Bakken, at Madison College, expects many programs will continue to take a hybrid approach in the future. That will help the institution better cover its 12-county service area in southwestern Wisconsin.
"I think faculty have realized what has to be in person, hands-on, and what they actually can do in a more supportive way in a remote environment," she said.