Think Out Loud

Oregon’s community colleges see falling enrollment but some hope on the horizon

By Julie Sabatier (OPB)
July 21, 2022 9:24 p.m. Updated: Aug. 3, 2022 9:53 p.m.

Broadcast: Wednesday, July 27

Community colleges have seen enrollment drop during the pandemic, but these institutions have a key role to play in Oregon’s pandemic recovery. The state is investing $200 million in workforce development through the Future Ready Oregon program, which includes nearly $15 million to boost career pathway training programs at community colleges. We talk with Central Oregon Community College President Laurie Chesley and Mt. Hood Community College President Lisa Skari about how they’re approaching these challenges and opportunities.


Editor’s Note: OPB operates the jazz station KMHD in partnership with Mt. Hood Community College.

Note: The following transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB, I’m Dave Miller. We start today with community colleges. Statewide, they’ve seen huge enrollment drops because of the pandemic – 24% last year. But college leaders say their institutions also have a key role to play in pandemic recovery. The state is investing $200 million in workforce development through the Future-Ready Oregon Program that includes about $15 million to boost career pathway training programs at community colleges. Joining me now to talk about this are the leaders of two of these schools: Lisa Skari is the President of Mount Hood Community College; Laurie Chesley is the President of Central Oregon Community College. Welcome to you both.

Lisa Skari / Laurie Chesley: Hello.

Dave Miller: Laurie Chesley first, I noted that that statewide number 24% drop in community college enrollment last fall from pre-pandemic levels. What did that look like in Central Oregon Community College?

Laurie Chesley: It was definitely a significant decline in enrollment that impacted us and I believe that happens for two different reasons. The first is that employment is high, which is a key economic factor, and wages in entry level, unskilled jobs are also fairly high. The other factor also was Covid. Community Colleges serve very diverse audiences and some of our students are among the most vulnerable in our society and they’re already struggling with a lot of different factors – jobs, children, etcetera. And then if you add Covid to that mix, it becomes the straw that breaks the camel’s back and furthering your education becomes less of a priority after just surviving through the pandemic. So it was a real challenge for us, but we’re doing a number of things to adapt.

Miller: We want to hear about that, but Lisa Skari, first. What about Mount Hood Community College, what kinds of declines did you see?

Lisa Skari: We weren’t any different than the other community colleges in the state, seeing double digit declines, and when we looked at it, we were seeing it really hit two areas. Some of our most vulnerable populations as Dr. Chesley had mentioned – those students who had children. So there was child care, but also, paying for college is an expensive endeavor. And so those that were more financially fragile found it more difficult to attend classes and continue in the pandemic, especially with losing employment.

Miller: Do you already have projections for the Fall? It’s not that far away.

Laurie Chesley: It’s still really early to tell. But we’re essentially flat for the Fall, and our enrollment has been flat for the past two terms. So this may be a sign that trends are changing, we’ll have to wait and see.

Miller: When you say it’s too early to tell. That’s because some people make the decisions to enroll in classes at the last minute.

Is that different from four year schools where you might have a better sense at this point?

Chesley: Yes. Large, large numbers of community college students, I think, particularly those who are vulnerable financially, make the decision to attend fairly late. Our classes start mid-September, so that is a difference between community colleges and universities.

Miller: Lisa Skari, can you give us a sense for what a double digit drop in enrollment meant for the kinds of services you could offer and employment of faculty and staff?

Lisa Skari: With the decreased student numbers, we obviously offered fewer classes. So we did see a reduction in our faculty, probably most specifically in our part-time faculty areas. Then with the services with students not on campus, things like food service and some of those other amenities were scaled back. I will say though, we did, knowing that there were students and the needs they had, we maintained our student basic needs efforts. So keeping our food pantry operating, trying to keep the resources related to housing support, child care referrals and so on. We felt it was important to supporting our students through these challenging times.

Miller: And Laurie Chesley. What about Central Oregon Community College? How much have you had to actually make staff cuts or faculty cuts or offerings cuts?

Chesley: We were fortunate in that we did need to furlough some of our irregular wage, temporary workers, but where those folks have wanted to come back, we’ve been able to hire them back. We immediately, at the start of the pandemic, stopped any non-essential spending and we offered a voluntary retirement incentive as well, so we were able to keep the impacts on our workforce fairly minimal. I’m not saying there weren’t any, and that some folks didn’t suffer, but we kept those fairly minimal. Also the money that came to community colleges through the higher education emergency relief funding was very valuable in helping us maintain our services and our offerings.

Miller: If you’re just tuning in. We’re talking right now with the leaders of two community colleges in Oregon, Laurie Chesley is the President of Central Oregon Community College, Lisa Skari is the President of Mount Hood Community College. I should also note that OPB operates the Jazz station KMHD in partnership with Mount Hood Community College. Lisa Skari, I want to go back to something that Laurie Chesley mentioned earlier, that there are two almost opposing issues happening at the same time in terms of the pandemic – both of which depressed enrollment at the school, one you can see is almost positive and the other obviously negative. The negative one is what we’ve been lingering on, the ways in which the pandemic disrupted people’s lives, especially lower income people or families who had to take care of children and made it so they couldn’t attend classes. But the other is worth coming back to here – the idea that wages were up and that hiring was strong. What has that meant in terms of the desire among people in your area to go to school or to go back to school?

Skari: This has been an interesting conundrum, for lack of a better word. And part of it, with the individuals who, for example, had some economic challenges during the pandemic, this opportunity to get decent paying jobs, some with hiring bonuses, have been important to them and their families in stabilizing their resources. So going back to school right away didn’t seem as important as that, that stabilizing the home life. That said, there’s always this opportunity for career growth and future career plans. That’s where the community colleges have always been strong, in providing the skills that employees need for their first job, their second job and throughout their work life. And so we still see students coming back for that ‘re-skilling’ and retooling for that career advancement and career pathway.

Miller: Laurie Chesley, do you have a specific plan to get people who dropped out to come back?

Chesley: Yes. I hesitate to call it a silver lining, but one of the benefits that came to us from COVID is that we were forced, very quickly, to adapt to a new environment and to really put all of our classes and all of our services online. So what we’re seeing now, a few years into Covid, is that we have more students interested in online learning and in various hybrid forms of learning. And we feel that that’s a very key strategy for us to improve our enrollments and really to improve access to anybody in our District who wants to come to college.

Miller: Can you give us just a percentage sense, if possible, on pre-pandemic, online offerings and post-pandemic or- obviously I don’t even know if there’s ever going to be a ‘post,’ but where we are going forward?

Chesley: Here are some numbers that are a headcount of students. So 2016-2017, we had approximately 7,000 students who were taking traditional face-to-face courses and we had approximately 200 students who were enrolled in online offerings. This year, 2021-22, those numbers are almost even. It is approximately 3,000, headcount, students taking online and approximately 3,000 taking face-to-face. So our numbers are definitely changing, in terms of modes of delivery…

Miller: From under 3%, if my back of the envelope math is correct, [Chesley, laughing] to about 50%, but we’re still in the middle of real waves of novel versions of this novel virus. Do you think that this is a lasting change we’re going to see in community colleges?

Chesley: That would be my prediction. I think that whenever you’re trying something new and a lot of people are trying online learning either as a faculty member, as a student, it’s hard at the beginning, but you get used to it and you get better at it. And I’ve seen our faculty just get better and better at this work and we’ve seen students who want more and more options.


Miller: Lisa Skari, have you seen the same thing? What seems like a permanent shift in the way you’ll be offering community college and what students expect from community college?

Skari: Yes, I completely agree. We’re trying to find this perfect equilibrium in serving our students and being there for those who want to be in-person. But we know a large contingent of our students, right, need that flexibility that comes with online courses and allows them to work or care for family members. So I see this as how we operate going forward, and finding that perfect balance is I think the challenge in front of us.

Miller: So what we’ve been talking about here is a shift in how you’re teaching. I’m curious if you’ve also seen shifts in what you’re teaching or what students want to learn. Lisa Skari first, for example, in healthcare, which I think has long been one of the many focuses of many community colleges, helping people get into various kinds of, of a growing field. I can imagine the pandemic pushing people in two different ways. One that they would see that there is a ton of potential work available and it will be necessary going forward, the other, that it’s a really stressful job, where there’s been so many reports of the challenges. What have you seen in terms of the desire of people to start this kind of career?

Skari: We’re continuing to see strong interest in all of our health care programs, and with some of them, because we only have so many slots, they’re competitive-entry. So we still have more demand in those programs than we have seats available. So, Mount Hood, the healthcare industry or the health care training area is continuing to be strong.

Miller: What about Central Oregon, Laurie Chesley?

Chesley: The same is absolutely true for us. We’ve actually seen, since Covid began, increased enrollment in nursing, CNA, vet tech and dental assisting, although it’s interesting to note that in the very first year of Covid, we did see just a temporary blip in nursing where there was a small decline.

Miller: And how would you explain that?

Chesley: Well, I would speculate that it was potential students learning to adjust to Covid, and the difficulties in their own lives. And I would speculate maybe some of it was seeing just how scary that work could be. But I don’t have any certain data on either.

Miller: I want to turn back to that bill that Oregon lawmakers passed in March, $200 million dollars for Future-Ready Oregon. Not all that is for community colleges, but a chunk is. Lisa Skari, first, what will this bill mean for community colleges?

Skari: There’s several segments of it and one that’s really been focused on the community colleges, the career pathways work. And this allows each institution to figure out how they’re gonna grow and develop the workforce of their community, because ultimately that’s what community colleges are about – is supporting our local area. Mount Hood is blessed with a very diverse community and a very broad employer base. So one way we’re addressing this and using the funds is working around merging our English as a second language skill development with career and technical education and we call this ‘VESL,’ which is vocational ESL. But it helps members of our communities with both that language acquisition, but getting them on a career path which leads… [PA Announcement cuts in]

Miller: they have my attention…

[PA continues…guests may return to their rooms in business…we apologize…]

Miller: Okay, so you were saying that the idea, it seems like a specialized ESL program that’s not about language broadly or only, but about a kind of focused language instruction that can tie into a career.

Skari: Yes, so it’s relevant, it’s contextualized and it really helps the students both advance in their skills, because we have a lot of our immigrant refugee community that bring talents with them from their home country. And so finding ways to support them and get them back into livable wage jobs is a priority for us,

Miller: Laurie Chesley. What are you hoping to be able to do with this infusion of state money?

Chesley: We are looking to bolster a number of areas, definitely healthcare, we are building a new facility in Madras, which is in our service district and that facility will focus on health care needs in that more rural part of our district, as well as early childhood education needs. And one thing that the pandemic has really done is shine a spotlight on the need for even more services related to public health and to childcare. So that’s a big, big goal for us as we move forward.

Miller: What do you think you’re missing right now? I mean, what help would be most helpful?

Chesley: [Laughing] Well, if we could make the economic picture clear for the future, that would be great. We could…

Miller: Do you mean…

Chesley: …forecast and plan…

Miller: Oh, in terms of clarity for planning, not necessarily more money, but knowing how much money you will have?

Chesley: Exactly.

Miller: And Lisa Skari, what about you? I mean, you have gotten federal help in terms of emergency help and now part of this infusion from state money. So, separate from financing, what else do you think it would take to improve the community college system and the connections between community colleges and workforce development?

Skari: I think it’s a continuation of some of the work that is already being done, is that connection with employers, and further honing our offerings of what they need and related mentioned the Future-Ready Oregon Work. There are some great collaborations happening around the semiconductor space with community colleges, with chambers, with businesses, right, really thinking through how to set Oregon up as a leader around semiconductors and it ranges everything from the operators and technicians up to the research and development. And so this is an example of a real, strong collaboration of all partners coming together to look at a common problem and figure out how we best address it. And so that’s some of the opportunity I see going forward is further refining those relationships and being responsive to what our communities need in serving students.

Miller: Lisa Skari and Laurie Chesley, thanks very much.

Skari / Chesley: Thank you.

Miller: Lisa Skari is the President of Mount Hood Community College, and Laurie Chesley is the President of Central Oregon Community College.

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