July 31, 2021

Joliet Junior College president details challenges posed by COVID-19 pandemic

Enrollment during fall semester down 12% at JJC

Joliet Junior College President Judy Mitchell delivered the State of the College address virtually on Tuesday, detailing the school's efforts to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, provide opportunities for students and develop more equitable practices.

Mitchell detailed the "significant impact" the pandemic has had on its operations and its students. Early on this past summer, JJC announced it would hold the vast majority of its classes remotely during the fall semester. Only about 10% of its classes would be held in person.

While the college saw about a 6% increase in its enrollment for the summer session, Mitchell said that increase did not carry over through the fall semester. Around 13,455 students enrolled at JJC for the fall, which represented about a 12.7% decrease from the fall 2019 semester, according to Bob Morris, the school's dean of enrollment management.

Mitchell said JJC conducted research through surveys to learn about the reasons for the decline.

"Data shows that many students prefer a face-to-face learning environment," she said.

Mitchell added that many students are taking a sort of mental "gap year" because they prefer the holistic student experience.

JJC has also attempted to retain students experiencing financial hardships during the economic downturn. Mitchell said this economic recession was unique because in past downturns, enrollment at community colleges has tended to increase during hard times.

"The pandemic has overturned these traditional calculations," Mitchell said.

She cited data showing that many students don't have adequate internet access and face increased family obligations that limit the time they have to devote to school.

To help its students, JJC was able to award about $2.7 million in federal funds via the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act. The school also raised about $33,000 for its Student Emergency Fund since March, with 90% of the donations coming from employees. The JJC Foundation also purchased 50 laptops to loan to students.

Despite the challenges, Mitchell said JJC has continued to expand opportunities through other ventures like the launching of a respiratory therapy program in 2022, a field in high demand of workers. JJC's Small Business Development Center has also added more than 60 clients, advising them through a tough economic period.

Mitchel also touted improving academic trends over recent years. Between the fall 2018 and fall 2019 semesters, JJC retained 66% of its full-time students, exceeding its goal of 54%. JJC has also seen an 18% increase in its student graduations over three years.

In light of calls across the country for racial justice this year, Mitchell also shared how JJC has tried to create an "anti-racist culture and organization."

JJC welcomed Escortina Ervin as its new executive director of its Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Compliance. Mitchell also touted the increase in the number of applicants of color for employment at JJC.

Between 2017 and 2020, JJC has seen a 6% increase of applicants of color for staff positions and an 8% increase for faculty positions.

In addition, over the summer, JJC supervisors and leadership participated in training for best practices in hiring to align with the college's goals for diversity, equity and inclusion. JJC also completed an external review of all of its job descriptions to ensure equity.

"This is just a start, but we know our efforts need to continue to make a lasting impact," Mitchell said.

Alex Ortiz

Alex Ortiz is a reporter for The Herald-News in Joliet. Originally from Romeoville, Ill., he joined The Herald-News in 2017 and mostly covers Will County government, politics, education and more. He earned his bachelor's degree at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a master's degree from Northwestern University.