RRCC winter (copy)

Rainy River Community College students who attend in-person classes returned to campus last week for the first time since Thanksgiving.

Brad Krasaway, director of operations, and Molly Nelson, director of marketing and recruiting, said they were glad to see students return and knocked on wood that since the pandemic began, there haven’t been any positive cases of COVID-19 reported among the student body.

“Let’s hope we keep it that way,” Krasaway said, noting several students took advantage of the free community testing site in January.

The pandemic has undoubtedly changed the way of life at Rainy River Community College, along with colleges and universities around the globe. The shift to online classes has become more of the norm and officials are seeing changes in enrollment.

At Rainy River Community College, enrollment has dipped among local, traditional students, and officials are looking at ways to get more students enrolled for the fall semester. And while they focus on virtual site visits and answering questions over Zoom, a top concern of my college officials, including Krasaway, are students taking gap years.

Gap years are when students take time off from higher education to enter the workforce or for other reasons. Gap years occur between high school graduation and college, but also anywhere within the lifespan of higher education. The trend was a concern before the pandemic, but COVID-19 has only increased the odds.

“Research shows that 65 percent of all students who take a gap year, with plans on eventually going to school, end up not going,” Krasaway said. “Of the people who do return to a campus after taking a gap year, they are 20 percent more likely to not graduate.”

Typically, Nelson would focus spring and summer recruiting efforts on this year’s high school seniors to get them enrolled for next fall. Now, she is focusing on the class of 2020, too.

“We have to work both lists, normally we would only work one,” Krasaway said.

By offering an associate’s degree, Krasaway said RRCC specializes in the undecided majors, offering classes that allow students to explore their interests. When it comes to those most likely to take a gap year, the undecided isn’t working in Rainy River’s favor.

“Undecided students are more likely to take a gap year,” he said. “I don’t know if they’ve felt the freedom of work, or whatever it is.”

Financial aid, or lack thereof, can come into play, too. There are situations when students have made money while working during a gap year, making them less eligible for financial aid.

“The whole situation can create a lot of challenges,” Krasaway said.

But, he said he understands.

“I understand why students may take a gap year,” Krasaway said. “I get the stress, I get the anxiety and the undecided... I look at the numbers of historically what gap years do, and it does make me nervous... Students choosing not to go to college is not only going to impact the college, but the community at large... These are our future community leaders.”

The message Krasaway has to students considering a gap year?

“Go to college somewhere whether it be here or somewhere else,” he said. “I just want students to go.”

Hopeful for fall

While challenges exist, there are still hopeful factors for fall enrollment.

The goal of RRCC administration and faculty right now is to have mostly in-person learning when fall semester begins with social distancing and masking likely in place.

Currently, it’s a three-way balance between the percentage of students who are completely in the classroom, the number of students who are completely online and the rest doing a little of both.

“That’s where it was in the fall, too,” Krasaway said.

Nelson said she hopes RRCC gains more interest from the local student population.

“We’re hoping they will see the benefit of a community college more so now,” she said. “They may feel safer staying at home and maybe bigger campuses will be delivering more online classes and they will want to be in the classroom... We’re finding students want to be in-person, even if it’s just one day.”

One of the early indicators for a strong fall enrollment, especially from local students, is increased returns on the Top of the Class Scholarship. Nelson said it’s a local incentive for students with a grade point average of 3.5 or higher.

“It’s a $3,000 scholarship for the full year,” she said, adding its renewable if a certain GPA is maintained. “We receive a list of students who qualify, and students literally just have to sign it and return it by the end of February... That covers over half of tuition and fees for a whole year. That’s huge.”

The number of returns at this point are double what they were last year, Krasaway added.

“As far as an early indicator, that’s a good sign,” he said.