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Colorado’s community colleges not sure what to expect for enrollment during COVID-19

Kelly Lyell
Fort Collins Coloradoan
Published 4:23 PM EDT Jul 24, 2020

FORT COLLINS — Northern Colorado’s community colleges could see the kind of enrollment decline this fall that they’ve seen over the summer, when enrollment at one institution dropped 23%, given fears about the spread of COVID-19 and the economic downturn brought on by efforts to slow its spread.

Or they could see the kind of increases they experienced during the last recession, when many people who lost jobs chose to return to school to pursue new careers. Others opted for community colleges to save money while they began working toward bachelor’s degrees they planned to eventually earn from 4-year colleges or universities.

Maybe still, Front Range and Aims community colleges will see a combination of those effects balance each other out to keep their enrollments steady.

Nobody really knows, at this point, which direction their student bodies will go.

Colorado’s community colleges don’t have admissions processes like those at Colorado State University, the University of Colorado and University of Northern Colorado, which allow those institutions to monitor and even control who will come to their campuses each fall. The state’s community colleges run on open enrollment, allowing anyone with a high school diploma or its equivalent to pay their tuition and fees and take classes.

“We’re prepared for anything,” Aims President Leah Bornstein said. “Unlike the universities, we don’t know our enrollments in advance. We find out the week before, two weeks before, the week of, when everyone starts registering for classes. Sometimes, the class has already started, and they’re still enrolling.”

How will classes be taught?

That generally uncertain preparation has an added twist this year. Enrollment isn’t the only variable the community colleges are preparing for; they also each have several different plans in place for how instruction will be offered, depending on health and safety guidelines enacted by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and county health departments.

Front Range has campuses in Fort Collins, Westminster and Longmont. Aims has campuses in Loveland, Windsor, Greeley and Fort Lupton and operates a flight-training center at the Northern Colorado Regional Airport.

Both community colleges plan to offer instruction online only in all programs that can be taught that way. Front Range has been offering classes online since 1994, President Andrew Dorsey said, and was recently voted among the top 10 community colleges in the country for online education.

“We have a full selection of classes online at any time, but many of our classroom classes are going to convert to real-time online, so students will show up on Zoom at the same time.”

A mannequin lies in a hospital bed as Susan Ihlenfeldt, a nursing faculty member, discusses the teaching applications of a simulation room in the new Grays Peak building at Front Range Community College in Fort Collins, Colo. on Wednesday, July 22, 2020.
Bethany Baker / The Coloradoan

Some classes in technical fields can only be offered in-person, Dorsey and Bornstein said, and would have to be scrapped for the semester if rules enacted to stop the spread of COVID-19 don’t allow for them to be taught in that manner.

Classes in nursing, automotive technology and welding require in-person instruction, Dorsey said, as does laboratory work in many of the school’s science classes. Some learning can be done remotely in those areas, he said, but these classes can’t be completed without some in-person, hands-on work.

Those courses are being offered on campus this summer and will be again in the fall, Larimer Campus vice president Jean Runyon said. Most other courses at Front Range will be taught remotely.

Front Range is opening a new, 60,000-square foot Health Careers Center on its Larimer Campus in Fort Collins this fall that will free up space to bring its police training and heating, ventilation and air conditioning technology courses back to campus, Dorsey said.

Aims operates programs for public safety and automotive technology in Windsor and for commercial truck driving, agricultural technology and welding in Fort Lupton that also require in-person instruction, Bornstein said.

The two Northern Colorado community colleges also have plans to offer their usual full slate of classes in-person, on-campus, when they’re able. They can modify and add classrooms, as needed, to ensure students and instructors are safely social-distanced from one another. If masks or other face coverings are required by state and county health orders, they’re prepared to make sure students and instructors wear them.

Staffing must expand and contract with enrollment

Both schools utilize a significant number of part-time instructors, and their presidents are confident they’re prepared to handle significant increases in enrollment, too. Front Range saw enrollment increase by 14% in one year (2008-09) and 40% over three years during the last economic recession, Dorsey said.

Although his school is projecting a 7% decrease in enrollment this fall, similar to the 5% to 7% drop Colorado State University is anticipating, “we’re very adept at expanding enrollment when we need to,” he said.

Aims is “anticipating maybe a 15%-20% decline over last year,” Bornstein said, based on conversations she’s had with peers at community colleges across the country. But she realizes Aims could see a spike this fall, too, and has confirmed with deans, department chairs and others who head up each area of study that there are more than enough credentialed instructors to add sections and classes as needed for an increase of as much as 25%.

Aims had about 8,950 students last year, most of them part-time, she said.

Front Range expects to have 19,285 students in its programs this fall, including 4,436 at the Larimer Campus in Fort Collins. A significant number of Front Range students — more than 6,000 each year, Dorsey said — will transfer to four-year colleges.

The door to an ambulance simulator stands open in a lab in the new Grays Peak building at Front Range Community College in Fort Collins, Colo. on Wednesday, July 22, 2020.
Bethany Baker / The Coloradoan

Aims launched a program last year to help transition students to the University of Northern Colorado, Bornstein said. Students in the program at Aims’ main campus in Greeley are enrolled at both schools simultaneously, receive student IDs for each and have access to libraries, clubs and student organizations and activities on both campuses.

Some plan to spend just one semester at Aims before transitioning to UNC, while others hope to earn a two-year associate degree or certificate before making the move, she said.

With guaranteed acceptance of transfer credits by state-supported four-year colleges and universities in Colorado, that path was becoming increasingly common even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Dorsey and Bornstein expect to see an even bigger jump in the number of students taking that route moving forward.

“Colorado has one of the best transfer systems in the country,” Dorsey said. “And at Front Range, we’re among the most successful starting institutions in the country. Students are guaranteed to be able to transfer up to a full associates degree in almost every discipline possible, and we have strong academic department relationships between Front Range and CSU.”

CSU, he said, even has a dedicated staff member to help facilitate transfers from FRCC to its science programs.

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Cost concerns could drive some students to community colleges

Community colleges are generally cheaper and more accessible than four-year colleges. CSU will charge in-state students $428.20 per credit in base tuition and a minimum of $236.39 in student fees for the 2020-21 school year. Tuition and fees for a full-time student paying in-state tuition at CSU are $5,969.60 per semester, according to schedules published on the university’s financial-aid website.

In-state students at CU’s main campus in Boulder will pay a minimum of $1,341 for 1 to 3 credit hours per semester and $785.30 in mandatory student fees. Full-time students who qualify for in-state tuition will pay a minimum of $6,232.92 in tuition and fees per semester, according to the university’s published rates.

Colorado residents taking a full-time load of 15 credit hours on FRCC’s Larimer Campus will pay $2,568.79 in tuition and fees, according to the school’s website. Tuition and fees for 15 credit hours for an in-state student at Aims is $1,720.00, according to a calculator on its website, and just $1,135.00 for residents of the district covering most of Weld County that it primarily serves.

CSU is projecting a 5% to 7% drop in enrollment this fall over last fall, said Leslie Taylor, the university’s vice president for enrollment and access. The school is urging students who decide to take a semester or two off from CSU because of the uncertainty created by COVID-19 to take some courses at a local community college or through the university’s online program, Taylor said.

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CU projects enrollment this fall to be comparable to what it was last fall on its Boulder campus but drop 14.3 percent on its Colorado Springs campus and 6.4% on its Denver campus, said Ken McConnellogue, the university’s vice president for enrollment.

So, despite projections that enrollment at Front Range will drop this fall, as well, Dorsey says he’s “optimistic” about a possible increase over last year’s numbers. Bornstein said she wouldn’t be at all surprised to see a jump at Aims, as well, particularly if CSU, CU and UNC wind up offering most, or all, of their classes remotely.

Classes start at most schools Aug. 24, with Aims starting Aug. 26.

And just four weeks out, the community colleges still don’t really know what impact the COVID-19 pandemic will have on their institutions.

“When we look back at the Great Recession in the early 2000s, community colleges across the country saw double-digit enrollment growth, and that’s kind of typical when you go through a recession because folks are kind of thinking about retooling, retraining and wanting to do something different,” Bornstein said. “So, this could go like that.

“There also, though, could be the opposite effect that’s very different from the recession. This is about health and safety, so we could also see double-digit declines in enrollment for couple reasons: Folks have been furloughed or they haven’t been working, so they don’t have the funds necessarily, or they’ve been using their savings and discretionary funds to pay their rent or mortgage or for food or health care.

“Or, quite frankly, some folks may not feel safe or comfortable coming back to an in-person environment and are not comfortable with doing a remote environment.

“We’ve got two roads, and then there’s the third road down the middle of who knows? This whole thing is new and different. We could see some very different enrollment reaction than what we’re typically used to in higher ed.”

Kelly Lyell is a Coloradoan reporter. Contact him at, follow him on Twitter @KellyLyell and find him on Facebook at Help support Coloradoan journalists by purchasing a subscription today. 

This content was originally published here.