City Colleges enrollment uptick outpaces state, national averages but still short of pre-pandemic levels

City Colleges enrollment stands at 34,798 this fall, up 6.9% or 2,233 students from 32,565 a year ago.

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Malcolm X College is located at 1900 W Jackson Blvd. | Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Malcolm X College on the Near West Side is among the City Colleges of Chicago campuses that saw increased enrollment this fall.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Enrollment at the City Colleges of Chicago has slightly recovered this fall after a few years of dramatic declines, exceeding both state and national averages at other community colleges.

The uptick in students doesn’t return the seven-college system to its pre-pandemic enrollment levels but is still welcome positive news for administrators who credit several initiatives for the gains.

“We’re very pleased with it, and we’re going to build on this momentum,” City Colleges Chancellor Juan Salgado said. “Clearly [there’s] progress and clearly we have more work to do to get back to pre-pandemic levels of enrollment.”

City Colleges enrollment stands at 34,798 this fall, up 6.9% or 2,233 students from 32,565 a year ago. Six of the system’s seven campuses saw increases.

City Colleges of Chicago Chancellor Juan Salgado speaks during a press conference at Harold Washington College Tuesday afternoon, July 14, 2020. City Colleges of Chicago announced “Fresh Start,” a debt forgiveness program that will waive half of the student’s debt upon re-enrollment. The other half will be waived upon completion of their program.

City Colleges of Chicago Chancellor Juan Salgado says he’s proud of the system’s enrollment turnaround.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times file

Salgado said no one strategy has helped, rather “the combination of supports that we’re providing,” from increased customization of classes and in-person versus remote scheduling, to more scholarship opportunities and a deeper partnership with Chicago Public Schools.

Adult education was a huge driver of increased registrations this fall both at City Colleges and statewide. Those programs in Chicago drew an increase of 1,098 this year, a 16.6% gain from last fall. Salgado said the system is “a relevant institution to a wide range of people,” and those who have work and family responsibilities in addition to going back to school are returning after a tough couple years during the pandemic.

While there’s cautious optimism moving forward, the drop in enrollment over the past four years had been precipitous.

In 2018, the system enrolled over 11,000 more students for a total of 45,938. That figure dropped by about 5,000 for each of the next two years, including the fall of 2020, the first that schools had to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I won’t say that we can build back to where we were 10 years ago overnight or even ever,” Salgado said, citing Chicago’s significant population loss over the past decade. “But I think what we’re after is continued momentum.”

The City Colleges enrollment roller coaster has generally followed other Illinois public community colleges. Schools were seeing declines before the pandemic, then a huge 13.8% dip statewide in 2020. Many community colleges felt some recovery this year but not to the same extent as City Colleges and a few others around the state. The state averaged a 1.5% increase (compared to City Colleges’ 6.9%).

An enrollment report released by the Illinois Community College Board said the state’s enrollment growth this year has outpaced community colleges nationally, which saw an average decline this year of about a half-percent. The report said more students are back learning exclusively on campus than at any point since the start of the pandemic.

Even so, Salgado said administrators want to adjust to students’ needs, offering the example of a continued remote option that now features live online instructors rather than traditional virtual courses with recorded lessons.

“We’re not going back to the way things were,” Salgado said. “We’re going forward to the way things are and are going to be in the future.”

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