JCC sees decrease in enrollment amid COVID-19 pandemic

The president of Jamestown Community College said Thursday that the institution he leads has seen the same trend as other institutions in the State University of New York system — a decrease in enrollment.

Daniel DeMarte, the college’s president since July 2018, said a recent head count put the college at approximately 2,200 students enrolled for the current semester as compared to approximately 2,500 last school year.

The decrease, he said, was expected given the current circumstances.

“We are down,” he said. “We’re down like everybody else. I think the amount we’re down is normal within the average of what you would see looking across SUNY.”

But, it did turn out to be more than originally anticipated.

“We expected it to be down, it’s down a little bit further than even I expected it,” he said. “I think the reason for that is the fear was stronger than I realized.”

The likely verdict? Students opting to take a “gap year,” defined by the Gap Year Association as “a semester or year of experiential learning, typically taken after high school and prior to career or post-secondary education, in order to deepen one’s practical, professional, and personal awareness.”

But utilizing such time in a world hampered by the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to uncharted waters for students, DeMarte said.

“I’m curious to watch closely what a gap year looks like in a pandemic because I think normally when you hear that, the intent is, ‘I’m going to get some experience, I’m going to get a resume and then I’ll start college,'” DeMarte said. “I don’t know how many of our students are able to get to a job right now. So, a year could be a very long time if there isn’t that opportunity to build the resume.”

JCC — which has only confirmed one positive case of the virus to date — could be a safe solution for those who had that year interrupted.

“This is the opportunity for students to see they are safe on campus and that they don’t need to take the whole year,” he said. “We’re here and they don’t need to necessarily take that time off. I would argue that now is the absolute best time to be taking courses. If you can’t find a job, you want to be prepared when it’s there and to use this time now is crucial.”

Other areas in which the college has benefited during this time include the enrollment of students who chose to forgo studying at a larger college that has converted to distance learning.

“We were very thoughtful of putting out messages throughout the summer telling students, ‘If you’re thinking those same things — come to JCC. We’re open,'” he said. “And that’s still the case. If you’re the student who is at Penn State and you don’t want to go back and you can’t go back, you could take some courses with us and we’ll help you pick courses so that when you do go back to Penn State, you don’t miss a step. That’s what we do. We can help with that. That was part of the message as well.”

DeMarte also commended newly installed SUNY Chancellor Jim Malatras’ leadership in the wake of outbreaks at Oneonta and Fredonia.

“He’s visible, he’s decisive, he wastes no time in getting involved and addressing whatever issue we’re dealing with now,” he said. “He’s been able to bring resources to the conversation that are helping institutions work through their upticks in COVID cases and how to get out in front of an issue with COVID before it comes another issue. He’s been very good at keeping us ahead of any issues before they become bigger issues.”

Containing those outbreaks would have been a challenge for any administrator, he noted. Still, they have occurred with an added benefit.

“One of the things that I’ve seen that has been good is that the relationships between mayors and presidents and police departments and presidents — and there’s a similar version of this with us — are getting stronger as a result of COVID,” said DeMarte. “That’s a good thing. Even though a college may not be able to control what students are doing off-campus. They can, I think, keep those lines of communication open with police departments and others in at least keeping an eye on what’s going on and assist with the messaging.”

On a local level, the college has seen a strengthened relationship with both the Chautauqua and Cattaraugus county health departments.

“It’s — because of the pandemic — much stronger than it would have been otherwise,” he said. “When we have questions, we quickly are on the phone with someone from the county health departments getting an answer. They’re sharing the changes that are coming with us so that we’re not surprised and we’re able to address whatever that issue is. That’s our version of making sure that we’re still being a good partner in the community before they become bigger issues.”

And, though there will be issues related to COVID still to come, DeMarte said he is confident that this region will work to properly address them.

“Having spent time in a couple of other states, the people in Western New York are special,” he said. “They will not run from a situation, they’ll roll up their sleeves and they’ll get after it. Yes, we’re in a pandemic, but it’s such a part of our nature and part of our culture to find ways to solve problems, to be resourceful, to work through whatever situation is in front of us. That’s the mentality. That’s the attitude and that’s true here.”


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