Thompson Hall at Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro. Monty Combs / Wilkes Community College

For more than three decades, thousands of students in Alleghany County have attended college thanks to funding from the Alleghany Education Foundation.

Established in 1985 by former Alleghany Schools Superintendent John Woodruff, the foundation has awarded students in the sparsely populated North Carolina mountain county millions of dollars in scholarship funds, making it possible for them to go everywhere from community colleges to Yale.

But this year, the foundation noticed a decline in applications for scholarship funds from Alleghany High School students — 90 students compared with 104 in 2020 and 111 in 2019. While the difference is not a huge drop, for a school that averages around 400 students total, the reduction is significant.

That follows a trend happening across the state and nation in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a June report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, overall higher education spring enrollment fell to 16.9 million from 17.5 million, a one-year decline of 3.5%, or 603,000 students, seven times worse than the decline a year earlier.

Undergraduate students accounted for all of the losses, with a 4.9% drop, or 727,000 students. While all postsecondary sectors saw undergraduate enrollment drop this spring, community colleges were hardest hit, down 9.5%, or 476,000 fewer students. More than 65% of total undergraduate enrollment losses were in the community college sector. In North Carolina, community colleges saw an 11% decline in enrollment in fall 2020.

At Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, which has a partnership with the Alleghany Education Foundation to offer last-dollar scholarships that allow Alleghany County students to attend two years tuition-free, the drop in enrollment has been even greater.

“Unfortunately, we have seen a decline across the board during COVID, with enrollment dropping by a staggering 16% last year,” said Wilkes Community College President Jeff Cox.

“And we still have not recovered for this fall, as enrollment continues to be low in spite of our efforts with the WCC Education Promise program we are launching this fall to provide a tuition-free guarantee to all of the students in Wilkes, Ashe and Alleghany counties who meet our purposely broad criteria.”

In largely rural Alleghany County, the reasons for declining college enrollment are complex, but the combination of COVID and poverty have had a major impact. According to Alleghany High School Assistant Principal Melissa Vestal, the mixture of synchronous and asynchronous instruction last year made it possible for some students to take on jobs and complete their classwork outside the traditional school schedule.

“After entering the workforce, a number of students became dependent on the money they were making and chose to continue work rather than to continue their education, citing that ‘they would go to school once they had some money saved,’” Vestal said.

“Students did not fill out applications if they knew they were not going to college.”

Fewer scholarship applicants

The decline in college enrollment, and thus applications for Alleghany Education Foundation scholarships, comes at a time when the foundation has amassed more than $7 million in available funds, a remarkable sum for a county with only around 11,000 residents and a median household income of $37,830, according to 2019 U.S. census data.

The foundation doesn’t receive money from the county or state, instead relying entirely on private donations, many of which are willed to the fund, some exceeding $1 million. These willed donations, along with many other contributions to the fund, come from people who knew Woodruff or his wife, Rita, who served as a hospice nurse for many years.

“We feel like John’s still working in this county,” said Warren Taylor, current president of the foundation. “We had a million-dollar testamentary, and the will provided that this money go to the John Woodruff fund. It’s people he knew, and it was a result of his contact and relationship with them.”

Before the pandemic, the Alleghany Education Foundation and WCC struck a mutually beneficial partnership to use some of those funds and expand their reach to the county’s students.

Cox, who served as Alleghany County Schools superintendent for nine years before coming to WCC and was a member of the Alleghany Education Foundation board, noticed a decrease in the number of students from the county enrolling at WCC. He thought the foundation could help.

“Our enrollment from Alleghany County at Wilkes Community College had dwindled down into the single digits,” he said. “We weren’t getting a lot of kids taking advantage of community college — a lot of them were going to universities. And a lot of them ended up coming back for different issues. They couldn’t afford it, or it was too big coming from little Sparta.”

So WCC partnered with the Alleghany Education Foundation to create the last-dollar scholarship fund that ensures any graduating student in Alleghany County two years at the community college tuition-free.

Students have to meet certain criteria, including financial need, GPA and extracurricular activity participation. And as a last-dollar scholarship, the fund picks up any additional tuition owed by students who are eligible for federal funds like Pell Grants.

“Enrollment from Alleghany County was as low as seven students in 2014, but now we get enrollments in the 20s and 30s each year, or about 25% of the graduating seniors each year,” Cox said. “Prior to the pandemic, there has been a pretty significant increase in the students coming here.”

Similar Promise Programs exist at other community colleges throughout the state, and several schools are offering free tuition for students this fall through a mix of federal, state, local and philanthropic funding. Institutions such as Forsyth Technical Community College in Winston-Salem and Southwestern Community College in Sylva have seen bumps in applications due to the program.

North Carolina 2021 high school graduates from low- and middle-income families also can potentially qualify for the state’s new Longleaf Commitment grants, enacted earlier this year by Gov. Roy Cooper. The grants, funded through $31.5 million in federal COVID aid, give students at least $2,800 to cover tuition and fees at any community college in the state.

WCC also expanded its free tuition program to apply to two other neighboring counties this fall.

“We have been inspired by the Alleghany program to try to put the same idea to the other two counties we serve, Wilkes and Ashe counties,” Cox said. “This fall we’re launching the Comprehensive Wilkes Community College program for all three counties, and we’re in a fundraising campaign to raise $8.5 million to endow this program.”

While the program hasn’t raised enrollment numbers the way Cox would like so far, he hopes the initiative will reach more students as the grip of the pandemic weakens. For the students in these rural counties — many of whom can’t afford college without such a program — this funding can be their best chance to break the cycle of poverty.

“For all these students, getting the first two years at Wilkes Community College was a better solution,” Cox said. “Even if they wanted to go on and get a four-year degree, it was a good starting place for a lot of them. A four-year degree may not be right for everyone, but they need some postsecondary accreditation to get a job that pays a living wage.”

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Jennifer Bringle is a Wmforo contributing writer. Based in Greensboro, her articles have appeared in many news publications across the state and nationally. Send an email to [email protected] to contact her or other CPP news team members.