Clearing the Path Back to Community College

Blog Post
Sept. 13, 2021

Since the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, thousands of students have dropped out of their community college programs. By spring 2021, enrollment was down almost 10 percent—the biggest decline in all of higher education.

These students, many of them adults with families, were forced to grapple with new childcare responsibilities, lost income and, in many cases, lost jobs. In the spring 2021, over half a million fewer students enrolled in a community college than in spring 2019.

A recent national survey found that more than one-third of adults have had to change or cancel their college plans because of the pandemic. Black, Latino/a, low-income, and first-generation students—all of whom are overrepresented at community colleges—were also more likely to have dropped out or delayed enrollment than their white and wealthier counterparts. Many of these adults who have left college may never return and earn a credential which, in turn, will significantly increase their odds of experiencing bouts of poverty, unemployment, and income volatility in the future.

Similar to the Great Recession, adults without a postsecondary credential have been significantly more likely to lose their jobs or experience a reduction in wages than their more educated peers in the volatile COVID-impacted economy. Indeed, nearly 3 million Americans without postsecondary education or training are still jobless. While many jobs will return as the economy reopens, there is growing evidence that the pandemic has accelerated automation in some sectors, a process that could both reduce the number of high-quality jobs available to workers without college credentials and potentially increase the educational requirements of new jobs.

To help address these economic shifts, our team is launching a project to increase the capacity of community colleges to engage or re-engage students whose educational plans were derailed by the pandemic.

As colleges seek to help their communities recover from the impact of COVID-19, it’s essential to understand how adult students are making decisions about enrolling in postsecondary education and the factors shaping their thinking on what to study and how college fits into their lives. At the same time, we must support community colleges’ capacity to act on this understanding and bring students back.

Our forthcoming work will include research on student enrollment trends and the factors influencing student decision-making. We are also thrilled to partner with Student Ready Strategies to provide technical assistance to a cohort of community colleges that have experienced particularly significant enrollment declines. This work, in turn, will be used to develop actionable recommendations for federal and state policymakers and technical assistance resources for practitioners.

The recovery from the pandemic presents risks along with opportunities. Without careful attention to the needs of adults and working learners, it could generate a historic setback to rising rates of college completion and also widen racial disparities in educational attainment that contribute to the widening racial wealth gap. It is urgent that governments and colleges develop effective strategies for engaging and retaining the students most affected by the COVID crisis. We’re grateful to work on clearing the path to community college and the opportunities it presents during this critical moment. Stay tuned for more publications and events focused on welcoming students (back) to community college.

Enjoy what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter to receive updates on what’s new in Education Policy!

Related Topics
Workforce Development & CTE Higher Education Access and Affordability