Community College Enrollment Declines Threaten to Worsen Educational Inequity

Blog Post
Jan. 25, 2022

The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic recession have upended higher education. New data from the National Student Clearinghouse shows that college enrollment has declined by more than 5 percent from fall 2019 – right before the pandemic – to fall 2021. While enrollment is down across all types of postsecondary education (see figure 1), community colleges have been hit particularly hard.

Since the onset of the pandemic, community college enrollment has declined by more than 13 percent.

This alarming trend poses a threat to the wellbeing of community colleges and the students they serve – which includes more than half of all college students with low incomes – because community colleges were underfunded even before the pandemic.

While enrollment has decreased since the start of the pandemic across all student groups, a more complicated – and troubling – trend has emerged among adult students over the age of 24. Enrollment of first-time adult college students has decreased across all higher education sectors with the exception of for-profit colleges. At these colleges, first-time adult enrollment has increased by nearly 8 percent. This stands in stark contrast to the nearly 20 percent decline of first-time adult students at community colleges (see figure 2). Given that for-profit colleges are more expensive and have worse outcomes than community colleges, and for-profit colleges specifically target Black and Latino students for recruitment, this concerning trend threatens to exacerbate educational inequity. As for-profit colleges only enroll 10 percent of U.S. college students but account for more than 50 percent of all student loan defaults, this trend could increase student debt burdens for years to come.

Community college enrollment declines also differ by race and gender. Enrollment declines are larger for men than women, and are particularly large for Black men, Native American men, and international students (see figure 3).

From fall 2019 to fall 2021, Black male community college enrollment declined by nearly 24 percent, and Native American male enrollment at community colleges declined by nearly 26 percent. These declines are extremely alarming when considering the longstanding racial and gender inequities central to higher education: Black Americans and Native Americans are significantly less likely than white Americans to have a college degree and college graduation rates are lowest for Black men and Native American men. Historically, community colleges play a particularly important role in supporting Black and Native American students: in 2018, 44 percent of all Black undergraduates, and 57 percent of all Native American undergraduates, attended community college. The decline in Black and Native American male enrollment at community colleges therefore threatens to exacerbate inequities that undermine the entire higher education landscape.

These alarming trends require urgent action from policymakers, community colleges, and researchers.

To help reverse these trends, our team has partnered with a cohort of community colleges across Illinois, Oregon, and Louisiana, to help build the institutional capacity necessary to re-engage and re-enroll adult students who have stopped out of college during the pandemic.

Along with our partners Student Ready Strategies, we are building technical assistance plans tailored to the unique needs of each college in the cohort to ensure we fully understand – and address – exactly why adult students have stopped out of community college during the past two years. By working with colleges that span urban, rural, and suburban areas, we aim to uncover strategies that can help community colleges nationwide re-enroll adult learners.

Community colleges are a vital component of the higher education landscape – particularly for adult students, students of color, and students with low incomes – and their path to recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic and recession is foundational to advancing educational equity. Stay tuned for upcoming publications on our work to welcome adults back to community college.

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