Where Did All the Students Go?

Understanding the Enrollment Decline at Community Colleges During the Pandemic
Blog Post
Jennifer G. Lang / Shutterstock.com
Jan. 14, 2021

Last spring, as states across the country put restrictions in place to help combat the spread of COVID-19, many college and university leaders were left wondering what impact the pandemic would have on student enrollment. They were concerned that the longer lockdowns continued, the more their enrollments would be decimated at a time when school budgets were hard-hit because of the pandemic.

As states began to roll back their restrictions, summer and fall infection surges of COVID-19 led most institutions to begin the academic year either entirely or predominantly online, rather than in person. But college leaders’ worst fears about enrollment during a pandemic and resulting economic crisis did not come to pass. Overall, according to the National Student Clearinghouse, undergraduate enrollments were only down 4.4 percent for the fall 2020 semester.

When disaggregating the data by sector, though, it became clear that one sector accounted for much of the loss in enrollments. In times of economic recessions (like during the Great Recession), community colleges usually see enrollment growth as people return to school to obtain new skills. Instead, community colleges lost almost 10 percent of their enrollment this fall, a concerning trend given that they enroll a plurality of undergraduates in our nation and often are the educational choice of the most vulnerable student populations. This significant decline in enrollment is particularly worrying for educational equity. After all, community colleges are often access points for low-income students, students of color, and adult students.

To understand why this enrollment decline occurred, New America commissioned Lake Research Partners to conduct a community college enrollment survey (full topline data can be downloaded here). This nationally representative survey was conducted between December 1 to December 16, 2020. It included a sample of 1,696 adults: 501 who were enrolled in spring 2020 and continued enrollment in fall (“continuers”); 500 who were enrolled in the spring but did not enroll in the fall (“stop-outs”); 195 who considered enrollment in the spring and enrolled in the fall (“new students”); and 500 who considered enrolling in the spring but did not enroll in the fall (“aspirants”). Full methodology can be found at the end of this post.

By having four distinct groups, we were able to distinguish among these populations and look at the challenges they face during the pandemic and the economic crisis, and why some enrolled or re-enrolled while others did not. First, we’ll explore the concerns that these groups have in common. Then we will look at why stop-outs and aspirants did not enroll and how they compare to our continuers and new students. Finally, we’ll explore what the future holds for enrollments.

COVID-19 is a serious health and economic threat that distracts from academics

Our four groups, regardless of current enrollment status, have many characteristics in common that are important for institutional, state, and federal policymakers to keep in mind as they figure out how best to support students and would-be students during this crisis.

First, a majority of each group (65 percent of continuers, 60 percent of stop-outs, 65 percent of new students, and 66 percent of aspirants) are concerned about catching COVID-19. Indeed, already 8 to 12 percent of each group say they had been infected with COVID-19 and most know someone who has been infected. All the groups had concerns about catching COVID-19 from attending in-person instruction (67 percent for continuers, 61 percent for stop-outs, 60 percent for new students, and 62 percent for aspirants).

Each group also experienced a high rate of unemployment: 23 percent of continuers, 24 percent of stop-outs, 31 percent of new students, and 21 percent of aspirants have lost their job since the start of the pandemic. For those who have maintained employment, many of them work essential jobs (62 percent of continuers, 62 percent of stop-outs, 63 percent of new students, and 58 percent of aspirants), putting them at a greater risk of catching and spreading COVID-19 within their communities. Being an essential worker can also make caring for children, which between 37 and 47 percent of the four groups do, challenging.

Across all groups, significant percentages have experienced economic hardships. At the high end, between 35 and 49 percent across all groups have fallen behind on a bill, applied for public benefits, or received food from a pantry, program, or friend/family member during the pandemic. At the low end, but still a remarkable percentage, between 16 to 23 percent have been threatened with foreclosure or eviction (see table below).

Percent saying “Yes, experienced since the pandemic” Continuers (n=501) Stop-outs (n=500) New Students (n=195) Aspirants (n=500)
Fallen behind on a credit card, utility, loan, or other bill 38 44 35 49
Applied for public benefits 39 40 41 44
Received free food or meals from a food pantry or meal program 40 39 36 43
Received free food or meals from family or friends because you did not have money to buy food 41 38 36 40
Skipped meals because you did not have enough money to buy food 36 37 32 37
Went hungry because you did not have enough money to buy food 28 31 26 26
Fallen behind on your rent or mortgage 31 37 28 29
Been threatened with foreclosure or with eviction 23 22 19 16
Not gotten or postponed getting medical care or surgery because of lack of money or insurance 28 34 27 34
Had either the gas, electricity, or telephone turned off because bill was not paid 31 30 23 21
Been without health insurance coverage 27 25 24 26
Needed to fill a prescription for yourself but could not afford to 23 30 19 24
Needed to fill a prescription for a family member but could not afford to 23 25 16 19
Moved in with other people even for a little while because of financial problems 28 25 19 20

Why stop-outs and aspirants did not enroll in the fall

The major reasons stop-outs did not enroll in the fall had to do with financial concerns. Nearly two in five (41 percent) had to work, and 38 percent could no longer afford their program. Technology and remote learning for stop-outs tended to also be an issue that prevented enrollment, with 23 percent not wanting to take classes online and 19 percent not having the technology or internet access to take classes online. Stop-outs also felt very mixed about how well their institutions had adapted to online learning in the spring of 2020 (42 percent positive, 40 percent negative).

The top reason that aspirants did not enroll in the fall was uncertainty around the pandemic (47 percent), followed by financial considerations (44 percent could no longer afford a program and 37 percent had to work) (see table below for comparisons between stop-outs and aspirants).

Percent saying “major reason” why didn’t enroll Stop-outs (n=500) Aspirants (n=500)
Had to work 41 37
Could no longer afford a program 38 44
The overall uncertainty because of the pandemic 34 47
Had to provide care for another person in my household 33 37
Feared the safety of taking classes in-person 32 39
Felt the pandemic negatively impacted the career path I wanted to pursue 29 24
Had a health issue 24 20
Did not want to take classes online 23 15
Did not have the technology or internet access to take classes online 19 17
Other 25 22

Comparing continuers and new students to those who did not enroll

One key difference found among those who enrolled in the fall and those who did not is aspiration in terms of degree attainment. Continuers (43 percent) and new students (45 percent) were more likely to be interested in pursuing a four-year degree or more, compared to stop-outs (20 percent) and aspirants (28 percent) (see figure below).

Continuers tended to have more experience with online education. Continuers were more likely than others to have taken courses online before (64 percent), as had 48 percent of new students, compared to 40 percent of stop-outs and 44 percent of aspirants (see figure below).

Continuers and new students were also more likely to be at a community college that was fully online or had mostly online course options this fall rather than be fully in person. Large majorities of continuers (71 percent) and new students (78 percent) were enrolled in fully online or hybrid courses during the fall. In contrast, half (51 percent) of stop-outs say that their campus is in-person or a mix of mostly in-person with some online courses.

Continuers and new students are also likely to believe their college is doing a good job with COVID-19 precautions. Continuers and new students give their institutions positive ratings for adapting to online education (68 percent and 66 percent, respectively, compared to just 42 percent of stop-outs). And they give even higher ratings for keeping people safe from COVID-19 (78 percent and 80 percent, respectively, compared to 64 percent of stop-outs) (see figure below).

What the future holds for enrollments and online education

One big question facing institutional, state, and federal policymakers is whether enrollments will improve at community colleges, at what pace, and when. Majorities of both stop-outs (57 percent) and aspirants (63 percent) still think it is likely they will enroll in the future. This is good news, but yet, quite a significant proportion do not know if they will return.

One hook for getting stop-outs to return, however, is their need for licensure or additional training. About half of stop-outs say they need a license to work in the field they were pursuing, and a majority of those (70 percent) say they need to finish their program in order to get licensed. Slightly more than half of both stop-outs (51 percent) and aspirants (52 percent) believe they will need additional training for their job or career.

A plurality of all the respondents prefer a mix of remote and in-person instruction in the future (40 percent of continuers, 40 percent of stop-outs, 39 percent of new students, and 45 percent of aspirants). This is the case even though our stop-out (42 percent), new student (42 percent), and aspirant groups (51 percent) believed that online education decreased the quality of courses. Given their work and caregiving responsibilities, these groups may recognize the trade-offs between quality and flexibility and prefer to mix courses as they need (see figure below).

Conclusion

This is a first look at critical survey data that will help policymakers and researchers understand the decline in community college enrollment and how we can help students maintain enrollment or re-enroll. Over the coming weeks, New America will continue to explore the data, looking at various demographics to analyze and explain other trends.

Methodology

Lake Research Partners designed and administered this survey, which was conducted online from December 1 through 16, 2020 and reached a total of 1,696 respondents who were screened from a national online panel into one of four potential groups:

  1. “Continuers” (known in the topline data as “continued/transferred”) were enrolled in a public vocational or technical college, public community college, or public two-year college in both the spring and fall of 2020 (Continued) or were enrolled in a public four-year college or private two- or four-year college in the spring of 2020 and transferred into a public vocational or technical college, public community college, or public two-year college in the fall of 2020 (Transferred). A total of 501 interviews were conducted with this group: 342 were in the Continued group and 159 were in the Transferred group.
  2. “Stop-outs” (known in the topline data as “stopped”) were enrolled in a public vocational or technical college, public community college, or public two-year college in the spring of 2020 and are no longer enrolled. A total of 500 interviews were conducted with those in this group.
  3. “New Students” (known in the topline data as “newly enrolled”) considered enrolling in a public vocational or technical college, public community college, or public two-year college earlier in the year and are currently enrolled. A total of 195 interviews were conducted with those in this group.
  4. “Aspirants” (known in the topline data as “considered”) had considered enrolling in a public vocational or technical college, public community college, or public two-year college earlier in the year and are not currently enrolled. A total of 500 interviews were conducted with those in this group.

The margin of error is +/- 4.4 percent for “Continuers,” “Stop-outs,” and “Aspirants” and +/- 7.0 percent for “New Students.”

All sample surveys are subject to possible sampling error; that is, the results of a survey may differ from those which would be obtained if the entire population were interviewed. The size of the sampling error depends upon both the total number of respondents in the survey and the percentage distribution of responses to a particular question. For example, if 50 percent of respondents in a sample of 501 respondents answered “Yes” to a particular question, we can be 95 percent confident that the true percentage will fall within 4.4 percentage points, or from 45.6 percent to 54.4 percent.

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