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Chris Smith wasn’t planning to spend the summer at a community college. He was going to sublet an apartment in Tallahassee and take classes at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, where he just completed his first year.

But Smith ended up back home with his family in Fort Lauderdale when the pandemic forced his classes online, an experience he described as disappointing.

“Honestly, I didn’t really learn anything at all this semester,” said Smith, a political science major. “I wasn’t really being challenged. I was just completing the work for the sake of completing the work.”

So he’s decided to spend the summer taking the math and science classes he needs — still online, but at a lower cost — by doing it through nearby Broward College, which serves mostly students pursuing associate degrees.

A math class at a Massachusetts community college. Growing numbers of current students and graduating high school seniors who are hesitant to go to, or return to, four-year campuses in the fall are switching to community colleges, officials at those institutions say. Credit: Photo: Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images

“That’s my plan for this summer but it will also be my plan in the fall” if Florida A&M  doesn’t reopen its campus, Smith said.

Even before the pandemic, a small but growing number of university students looking for a cheap way to knock off a few general education requirements took them at their local community colleges in the summer. The strategy even has a name: “summer swirl.”

Now far more are signing up at or considering community colleges for not only the summer, but also potentially the fall.

If they’re going to have to pay for coursework that remains online, said students who are part of this growing “corona swirl” movement, they might as well do it at community colleges that charge less than half as much for it.

Students “are really wrestling with how they want to engage” with higher ed in the fall, and “what kinds of commitments they want to make. I do think the community college will be an attractive option for a lot of people.”

Kevin Brockbank, president, Spokane Community College

“I do think the community college will be an attractive option for a lot of people,” said Kevin Brockbank, president of Spokane Community College in Washington State.

On the down side, students opting for community college past the summer may have trouble transferring their credits back to a four-year university. And high school graduates who have already been accepted as freshmen by four-year institutions might have to reapply if they decide to detour through a community college; in some states, they might not be able to transfer at all until they complete the equivalent of an associate degree.

Seventeen percent of college students don’t plan to return in the fall, or don’t know yet whether they will, according to a survey by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers and the American Council on Education. Another survey, by the consulting firm Simpson Scarborough, found that 4 percent of current students said they will enroll somewhere else if their institutions provide only online instruction.

One in 10  high school seniors who were planning to attend a four-year college or university before the pandemic have also already made alternative plans, and nearly half of those have said they will enroll at a community college, Simpson Scarborough reports.

Average tuition and fees at community colleges cost about a third as much as at the lowest-tier public four year and one-tenth as much as at the lowest-tier four year private university, the College Board reports. And that does not include room, board and other expenses at residential institutions. Some states make community colleges altogether free for first-time, full-time students through so-called “promise” programs.

Related: Another pandemic-related threat to universities: falling numbers of graduate students

Cuyahoga Community College has offered free tuition for local graduating high school seniors who intended to go to a four-year university in the fall but changed their plans because of financial hardship stemming from the coronavirus, and for current students from Cuyahoga County who were attending four-year institutions but can’t afford to go back. Credit: Photo: Tony Dejak/AP

Cuyahoga Community College in Ohio has added a free tuition program specifically for new and returning local students who are struggling financially because of the pandemic. These include high school seniors who intended to go to a four-year university but have to change their plans and current students from Cuyahoga County who were attending four-year institutions but can’t afford to go back.

Foothill College, a community college in California with an enrollment of 12,576, had already seen gains during the spring quarter, which started April 13, from students who had never taken classes there before. The college had almost 820 more new students, a 314 percent increase over the same time last year, said Simon Pennington, interim associate vice president of college and community relations. Some are also enrolled at four-year institutions, he said.

Seventeen percent of college students don’t plan to return in the fall, or don’t know yet whether they will. Four percent say they will enroll somewhere else if their institutions are able to provide only online instruction.

“What it indicates is that a lot of students are looking at their local community colleges,” Pennington said.

Lake Tahoe Community College, in California on the border with Nevada, has seen a 4 percent boost in the number of students coming there in the spring quarter who were enrolled at other institutions, according to Jeff DeFranco, the college president.

Everett Community College in Washington has seen an uptick in inquiries from not only local high school students and families but also students who were at colleges out of state, said Laurie Franklin, dean of enrollment and student financial services.

“It’s not just the folks that are thinking about where they’re going to go next year, but also students who are coming back in the middle of all of this,” she said.

Tyler Sullivan, a senior graduating from Stevens High School in Claremont, New Hampshire, put down a deposit for the fall at Colby-Sawyer College, also in New Hampshire, but has decided instead to attend a local community college.

“Not knowing how long this is going to be, I don’t want to do online classes at a four-year institution where I don’t know the professors personally,” Sullivan said.

Related: Little-noticed victims of the higher education shutdowns: college towns

Community colleges are a better option for students than taking a semester or a year off from school, said Martha Parham, spokeswoman for the American Association of Community Colleges. “It’s a great way for them to make sure they’re not losing time in their educational pathway,” Parham said.

It could also help the colleges themselves avoid the big enrollment decline anticipated for higher education overall, said Davis Jenkins, senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. (The Hechinger Report, which produced this story, is also housed at Teachers College.)

But Jenkins said community colleges will need to be strategic if they want to keep those students in the long term.

The average tuition and fees at community colleges total $3,660, compared with $10,230 at four-year, in-state public institutions and $35,830 at private institutions. For out-of-state public institutions, the average cost is $26,290.

“In the past, community colleges have relied on the fact that they’re inexpensive and accessible,” he said. Now “they have to move from offering cheap courses to offering affordable programs with strong support for students.” 

For example, students need to know whether their community college credits will be accepted by a four-year university or college.

Credit transfer among public institutions in the same state is generally straightforward, but it can get more complicated among states or among public and private institutions, or for students in majors with precise course sequences.

Students accepted as freshmen by some four-year institutions are prohibited from taking classes at other institutions. If they do, they have to reapply as transfer students. And some flagship universities such as the University of Florida and systems including the University of California require students to complete a minimum of 60 credits before they are eligible to be admitted as transfers. That could come as an unpleasant surprise to any who are thinking of taking only a summer’s or semester’s worth of community college credits.

Related: Biggest gap year ever? Sixteen percent of high school seniors say they’ll take a gap year

“Just taking courses doesn’t really necessarily help students,” Jenkins said. “You’ve got to engage them and offer them a plan and … the courses they need that are going to lead to the job or the credential that they want.”

Coaches at Ivy Tech Community College in Indianapolis have conducted virtual interviews with 500 graduating high school seniors focusing on the transition to college. “We’re trying to help students figure out what their plan should look like,” said Provost Kara Monroe. “We’re very careful to help the student go to the best choice for them.”

Part of the goal of the outreach is to let high school seniors know that “we can be a great option for more than just one class in the summer,” Monroe said.

In previous years, around a quarter of Ivy Tech’s summer students have also been simultaneously enrolled at other colleges.

For some students, applying to their local community college has provided a sense of security in an uncertain time.

Cassandra Chavez was planning to attend San Francisco State University but will instead go to West Valley College, a community college closer to her home in San Jose. That way, she said, “I won’t be paying San Francisco State hundreds on tuition [and] thousands on overall fees and housing for the same online classes I’ll be taking at West Valley from home.” Credit: Photo courtesy Cassandra Chavez

Last month, Cassandra Chavez, a senior at Abraham Lincoln High School in San Jose, was all set to attend San Francisco State University. She’d put down her deposit and committed to the school. Then she began to add up the cost of housing and other expenses.

She sat down to have a frank conversation about finances with her mother, who works as a supermarket manager. Her family would have had a hard time covering housing costs even before the pandemic hit. “My mom is the only one that is going to pay for my tuition,” Chavez said. And “she doesn’t get as many hours anymore because she’d rather not risk her life.”

So Chavez withdrew her enrollment at San Francisco State and applied to West Valley College, a community college in Saratoga that’s a 20-minute drive from San Jose.

Related: What has happened when campuses shut down for other disasters? A coronavirus case study

“At first I was really crushed because I always dreamed of moving away and having a dorm,” she said. But then the California State University system announced it would remain online for the fall semester.

“It definitely … makes me feel better that I won’t be paying San Francisco State hundreds on tuition [and] thousands on overall fees and housing for the same online classes I’ll be taking at West Valley from home.”

This story about going to community college was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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Charlotte West is a freelance journalist who covers education, criminal justice, housing, and politics. Her work has appeared in national publications such as The Hechinger Report, the Washington Post,...

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