Lisa Avery speaking at chamber luncheon
Linn-Benton Community College President Lisa Avery, far left, talks to the Philomath Area Chamber of Commerce on March 17. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

The impacts of COVID-19 have been felt in just about every aspect of life. On the education front, the pandemic forced families to make hard decisions. Based on data collected through a U.S. Census Bureau survey, over half of households with a current or prospective community college student said they canceled their plans.

The five states hit the worst? Alaska (53% canceled community college plans), Montana (53%), Nevada (52%), Colorado (51%) and Oregon (51%). According to the survey, out of those polled, 35% cited COVID or affordability concerns.

Locally, Linn-Benton Community College is trying to navigate through these enrollment challenges. President Lisa Avery talked about the topic during a March 17 program at the monthly Philomath Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

“I don’t know if I take comfort or solace or not in the fact that it’s a community college trend nationwide,” Avery said in an interview afterward. “Oregon is one of the worst hit and that’s a worry for our economy. So certainly we’re spending energy on getting enrollment back up.”

Avery believes some of the factors that could’ve been holding people back prospective students have eased.

“I think people want to know what they’re signing up for and not to wonder if something is going to be canceled halfway through or if the K-12 year is going to be canceled and they won’t be able to have somewhere for their kids to be during the day,” she said. “So I’m optimistic that we’ll do well.”

LBCC is already seeing signs that the worst of it may be over based on data metrics.

“Like from fall to winter, enrollment loss was less than usual and our spring enrollment looks better than we expected,” she said. “I mean, it’s not pre-pandemic but we’re looking a little bit better.”

Still, there is a long way to go to reach specific segments.

“It’s the double-whammy of who really needs to be in school that isn’t — low-income, first gen, student-parents, ethnic minorities and working-class men. That’s who we need to enroll,” Avery said.

The shortcomings in education correlate with various social costs.

“We don’t care if they go to high school — I will hope that they do — but whether it’s OSU or Western (Oregon) or even a private institution, we’ve just got to somehow see them getting back engaged in the world,” Avery said.

LBCC spends a great deal of focus on connecting with local industry, another area that has been significantly impacted by the pandemic.

For example, the Small Business Development Center, Avery said, is there “trying to help people who are starting new businesses, giving coaching and assistance for businesses that are trying to figure out how to pivot in this wacky new world, whatever it is.”

LBCC has taken steps to better emphasize the rural piece.

“I don’t think we’ve done a bad job in the past but we haven’t so assertively or aggressively pivoted toward our rural partners as much as we are now,” Avery said. “I like that part. I think it’s really important to engage people who feel like college might not be for them or they couldn’t afford it or they didn’t know what the programs are. We need to do a better job of that and it’s hard because there are a lot of people who just feel disengaged right now.”

Avery covered a fair amount of ground in a short time during her chamber luncheon talk, including LBCC’s vision for the future and plans to build a new agricultural center.

Brad Fuqua, Philomath News

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.