CGCC students adapt amid COVID-19 disruptions

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced colleges across Oregon to close buildings, students swiftly lost access to physical classrooms and labs, leaving distance learning as the only way to stay in class. Students at Columbia Gorge Community College are proving adaptable to this abrupt change, with the college reporting a net increase for one critical measure of enrollment.

Data released this week shows an increase in the number of credit hours for which students are registering, reflecting a full tuition load of 15 or more credits per term.

Compared with spring term 2019, that metric actually increased by 108 credit hours from spring term 2019 to spring term 2020, according to Gerardo Cifuentes, vice president of student services at CGCC. This, despite the technical challenges posed by often-limited access to broadband.

The actual number of students paying full tuition is unchanged from a year earlier at this same point in spring term. Taken together, those two metrics may be an early indication of the college’s role in providing new skills amid economic uncertainty, as students expand their credit load.

In keeping with other institutions, CGCC did see a decline in “full-time equivalent” enrollment or “FTE,” a formula used by Oregon to calculate state financial support for institutions. This metric dropped from 257 FTE in spring 2019 to 229 FTE in spring term 2020. Cifuentes said the loss in FTE is driven primarily by fewer K-12 students enrolled in “College Now,” one of three “dual credit” programs that enable high school seniors to gain college credit prior to high school graduation. With school districts closed over COVID-19 self-isolation measures, College Now enrollment dropped precipitously.

So how did CGCC manage to stabilize overall enrollment despite these challenges?

The college has been expanding its distance learning presence for several years, often recording among the highest distance-based credit enrollment in Oregon, which helped soften the abrupt loss of on-campus classes when Oregon Gov. Kate Brown ordered campuses closed beginning March 18.

But Cifuentes had already been leading a new initiative last fall and through winter term, organizing staff and faculty across the college to reach out to prospective students via cell phone and text messaging to complete their enrollment applications in order to qualify for financial aid.

Cifuentes also opened winter registration earlier last year, encouraging more students to start the process before the holidays. And, CGCC student advisers followed up individually with prospective students who were having difficulties completing their registration.

“It wasn’t just the nice weather last fall,” Cifuentes said, when he reported initial results this past January, long before the COVID-19 campus closure. “I wish it was that easy.” Even in January, enrollment showed a 10 percent increase over the previous year.

Of special importance was “student retention” over the previous year, referring to the number of students who stayed enrolled, on track to graduate or complete a training certificate or GED. Retention rate from fall to winter term was 73 percent, a new record for the college.

“As a team, this is something we do together,” Cifuentes said. “At Student Services, our main role is to help students become experts in what they need to know, and do, in order to succeed. They’re our customers. If they don’t like what we do, they’re not going to come back.” Part of that teamwork is close coordination between college instructors, academic advisers, and the admissions and registration team.

“There’s a stronger connection, so students don’t have to go from one campus to another” in search of assistance, said Stephen Shwiff, dean of general instruction, referring to the college’s campuses in Hood River and The Dalles. “It’s a stronger partnership.”

Looking ahead, the college will redouble these efforts as spring moves into summer, with on-campus classes now resuming no earlier than June.

“We need to keep doing things that nobody else is doing, so people see the value of being here, and enjoy being here,” Cifuentes said. “We always have to keep an eye on the people we are serving – our demographics, our rural region, a higher percentage living in poverty. Students are in survival mode. We have to recognize that. How can we change the game to make sure we provide support for students?”

Cifuentes and every member of the staff and faculty at CGCC ask themselves that question every day, and keep working hard to find the answers.