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NC Community College Enrollment Declined During Pandemic, Especially For Hands-On Degrees

 Johnston County Community College cosmetology student Rocio De Leon gets her hair curled during the class's salon hours.
Liz Schlemmer
Johnston County Community College cosmetology student Rocio De Leon gets her hair curled during the class's salon hours.

Johnston County Community College student Rocio De Leon works part-time as a photographer, running her own business taking portraits. Her dream is to combine her photography business with her cosmetology skills.

"Like for events," De Leon explains. "I want to be able to do their hair and makeup, and then take their pictures afterwards — for weddings, quinceañeras or Sweet 16s."

De Leon spared some time to talk about her future plans in the cosmetology salon while her classmate curled her hair into a heap of blonde ringlets.

"We work on each other, you know, color, blow-dry anything like that," De Leon said. "They've gotten a good hands-on [practice] with my hair."

De Leon has had her hair dyed by classmates at least three times since the class returned in person last fall. They have to practice on each other because the salon is closed to the public, and they still need to log practical hours to graduate.

At least there's lots of time for experimenting. The class meets four days a week from 4:30 p.m. until 11 p.m. That makes for a long day after students' other responsibilities.

"All of us, we have jobs, some people have kids. So, being able to do school plus being a parent plus keeping a job is hard," De Leon said.

Johnston County Community College cosmetology salon
Liz Schlemmer
Johnston County Community College cosmetology student Eric Carter gives his classmate Norma Rios a color touch-up at the class's salon.

Then you add in a pandemic, and everything got harder. De Leon had fewer photography gigs and some classmates lost their jobs. The students in the cosmetology program are mostly women and some took care of their children when local schools moved to remote classes.

The community college classes went online last spring too. Soon after, the numbers in the cosmetology class dwindled.

"Some people said, 'We'll come back later, or when all this is over,' or others, you know, online just wasn't for them," De Leon explained.

Now there are just four students in a cosmetology class that began with 14 students in January 2020, before the pandemic.

"I was surprised, because, you know, they sacrificed so much," De Leon said. "It was definitely surprising, just because they were so into the program."

Community colleges have lost many students this year. Enrollment of degree seeking students at community colleges dropped nationwide by about 10% between Fall 2019 and Fall 2020 and did not bounce back this spring, according to a recent report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

The surprising part is that the current enrollment is against the usual trend during an economic recession. Typically when unemployment rises, so does the number of people heading to community colleges. This year unemployment rose, but enrollment did not follow.

"This was very different. No one in our lifetime has had to work through a global pandemic," said North Carolina Community College System President Thomas Stith. "That's what we're faced with now."

North Carolina Community College System enrollment data show a 17% decline in overall headcount between Fall 2019 and Fall 2020, including degree and non-degree seeking students. Enrollment declines were greater among Black and Latino men and in hands-on courses.

NCCC Fall Headcount.JPG
Courtesy of the North Carolina Community College System
Enrollment by total headcount declined in the North Carolina Community College System between Fall 2019 and Fall 2020. Enrollment declines were greater in workforce continuing education and basic skills classes.

"Hospitality, as you can imagine, was significantly impacted," Stith said. "Some of our classes that require in-class training such as our welding, some of the trades, saw declines."

Cosmetology saw about a 17% decline in enrollment system-wide.

Stith said he has one wish for the students who had to leave school during the pandemic — that they will return soon to complete their education.

Stith said he's anticipating stronger enrollment in Fall 2021. Meanwhile, De Leon and her classmates are looking ahead to graduation this summer, proud that they stuck together through the pandemic.

"We all definitely had obstacles, but you know, everybody has different obstacles. It could be more difficult for somebody else," De Leon said. "At least we stuck through it and we're gonna finish together — the four of us."

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