Four Things to Know About Community College Enrollment

Blog Post
Photo by Oussama Zaidi on Unsplash
March 29, 2021

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, it was conventional wisdom that community college enrollment increased when the economy stalled. But now we are seeing enrollments plummet despite the weak economy. It turns out, as you can see from the graph, this recession is different.

Over our interviews with leaders at 20 colleges and a small convening of 15 leaders, we’ve learned more details about enrollment trends. Here are our four main takeaways:

  1. Yes, the enrollment decline is everywhere at community colleges. The college leaders we spoke to echoed the national trends on enrollment declines. One leader said “being down 15 percent [in enrollment] means that...15,000 students didn't come to [us] this year. That's 15,000 students who aren't going to be ready to transfer to university or into the workforce anytime soon and in a time when that population needs us most.” While we heard some optimism in our first interviews late last spring, we’re now hearing optimism about the future and realism about the present enrollment situation.
  2. Which students aren’t enrolling varies. We know for sure that the pandemic is disproportionately affecting minoritized students, especially Black, Latinx, and Indigenous populations. But college leaders who spoke with us reported different patterns in enrollment by age. Some saw persistence improve, which meant that the enrollment declines were driven by first-time students choosing not to attend. These schools tended to see a big drop in 18 to 24 year old students which they suspected was “because of our limited capacity to have people on campus and to provide face to face instruction.” Others saw big declines in the numbers of older students enrolled, perhaps as a result of child care or job issues. “We've really seen that health, childcare, and schooling dramatically impact who could come to us,” said a college administrator.
  3. Enrollment by program varies among colleges too. The types of programs with declines in enrollment were also mixed across the colleges we spoke to. At some schools, academic programs were seeing a decline while enrollments in career and technical education (CTE) programs were steady. But at many colleges, limitations on hands-on instruction meant smaller cohorts for these programs. One president told us “our automotive program first-year cohorts are probably about 35 percent smaller, our dental assisting is about 50 percent smaller, because we have to spread them out...whereas our IT programs this year are up about 11 percent.” Another college administrator said, “Our most vulnerable got hit the hardest. Dual enrollment saw a slight increase. Career technical [education] is limited by the labs. We had to do twice as many labs to try to keep up.” One college shared that enrollment in their adult basic education programs decreased by 50 percent.
  4. Basic needs security is a challenge across colleges. Regardless, access to food, shelter, and technology was a huge challenge to keeping students enrolled across every college in the group. Even when the economy is stronger, community colleges are likely to have large shares of students with food and/or housing insecurity; the pandemic has only exacerbated and expanded these needs. Some schools partnered with grocery stores to give gift cards and made their food banks more accessible to students and the community. They also provided students with wifi hotspots, access to the internet in socially distanced libraries, and laptops. As one administrator put it “we've had just a huge need for technology and WiFi access when everything went online. And the food insecurity. Our food pantry has really been needed.”

Parsing out differences in enrollment trends is still proving difficult. Some enrollment trends--such as lower enrollment for Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students and basic needs insecurities--reach most community colleges. Meanwhile, trends in age group and program type are less clear. Federal and state investments in community colleges should give institutions the latitude to address their particular needs as well as inequities across institutions. Read more of our recommendations for a federal investment in community colleges here.

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Higher Education Access and Affordability