Where Did All the Community College Students Go? The Nuances of Student Experience with Online Learning

Blog Post
Jennifer G. Lang / Shutterstock.com
April 5, 2021

This blog post is part of a series that explores the data from New America's Community College Enrollment Survey. You can read our introductory post to this series here.

The COVID-19 pandemic had made the unthinkable happen in higher education: within two weeks, most colleges and universities across the country scrambled to transfer their courses and programs online. While online learning was no new terrain prior to the pandemic, the sudden modality change and the new normal created by the pandemic led many higher education pundits to predict significant enrollment drops. Not as serious as expected, enrollment did decrease this past fall and continued to dwindle in the spring, declining by 4.5 percent year-over-year. At community colleges, however, the decline was much more drastic: nearly 10 percent drop compared to last year.

To understand how the transition online impacted students’ decisions to enroll or stay enrolled at community college, we surveyed current, former, and would-be community college students in December 2020 (See below for methodology). Reviewing data about online learning, we found that while a majority of students still have doubts about the quality of online classes, they prefer to have a mix of both online and in-person classes. Students who had taken online classes before felt more positive about the online pivot and online education in general. We also found that while most students can access their course content online, maintaining internet access at home poses a financial burden to most students.

In a survey of American adults in October, Pew found that only 30 percent of Americans think online classes provide equal educational value compared to in-person courses. However, our survey shows that what community college students think about online classes is much more nuanced. While a majority of all former, current, and prospective community college students believed that online learning provides less quality than in-person, students experiencing online learning prior to the pandemic tended to have a more favorable view. Among students who enrolled in community colleges in spring 2020 when the pandemic began, and continued in the fall semester (continuers), two in three (64 percent) have taken at least an online course prior to the pandemic. This is 20 percentage points greater than the number of students who stopped out after the spring semester (stop-outs) and those who considered and ended up not enrolling last fall (aspirants). More continuers than other groups also thought that online classes provided better quality than in-person classes: 25 percent of continuers compared to 15 percent of stop-outs and 12 percent of aspirants (See figures below).

When asked which type of learning model they prefer, only 34 percent of continuers, 33 percent of stop-outs, and 21 percent of aspirants said fully in-person. Students wanted some combination of both in-person and online classes: 40 percent of continuers, 40 percent of stop-outs and 45 percent of aspirants. Top reasons for this preference include more flexibility with scheduling and improving the quality of education compared to fully online classes (See figure below).

Community college students rate colleges differently on their pivot to online education. While two-third of continuers and new students (students who considered enrolling in community colleges in the spring and were enrolled in the fall) thought that their colleges and universities have done an excellent or good job transitioning to online education, stop-outs were more split on this question: 42 percent of stop-outs rated their institution’s transition as excellent or good, and another 40 percent rated the transition as just fair or poor. Half of aspirants (51 percent) had the impression that colleges in general did an excellent or good job transitioning to online learning, while a third (35 percent) thought that it was just fair or poor (See figure below).

The findings show that colleges could have done better during their transition to make the changes smoother for students. But that is not all: Focusing on improving the quality of online instruction and support would mean nothing if students do not have stable access to the internet.

First the good news: Most community college students of all groups have access to high speed internet besides their mobile phones (86 percent of continuers, 75 percent of stop-outs, 91 percent of new students, 86 percent of aspirants), and most also rated their internet quality as excellent or good (89 percent of continuers, 86 percent of stop-outs, 91 percent of new students, 86 percent of aspirants). However, it is concerning when a majority also said internet cost is a significant financial burden for them (59 percent of continuers, 57 percent of stop-outs, 46 percent of new students, 55 percent of aspirants), particularly given the massive economic upheaval COVID-19 has caused (See figures below).

Congress provided essential fundings to alleviate the broadband access burden for students in higher education in the second COVID-19 stimulus package passed in December 2020. The new Connecting Minority Communities Pilot Program allocates $258 million in fundings to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs), and other Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) for purchase of broadband access service and other technological needs. Another assistance is the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program that provides a monthly discount of $50 on broadband access service cost for eligible households--$75 if the household is on tribal land. If at least one member is a Pell grant recipient, the household would be automatically eligible. These are a significant help to college students and communities of color as many of them have been hit the hardest during the pandemic.

A deeper look into how current, former, and would-be community college students experience the pivot to online shows that while doubts about the quality of online learning remain, a majority would prefer to have online learning integrated into their programs more permanently after the COVID-19 pandemic ends. And while students with difficulty accessing the online course content may be in the minority, their numbers are not insignificant. Congress’s actions in December provided essential help to alleviate the internet access burden, but more permanent assistance will be needed to make sure all students have access to reliable internet. In the meantime, colleges and universities, in their future moves to integrate more online learning into their curriculum, should provide proper accommodations to students without access to high-quality internet.


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

  1. “Continuers” and “Transfers” 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, 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. A total of n=501 interviews were conducted with this group, of which n=342 were among those who continued their enrollment (known as “Continuers”) and n=159 who transferred to a public vocational, public community, or public two-year college (known as “Transfers”).
  2. “Stop-outs” 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 n=500 interviews were conducted with “Stop-outs.”
  3. “New Students” 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 N=195 interviews were conducted with “New Students.”
  4. “Aspirants” 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 N=500 interviews were conducted with “Aspirants.”

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

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

Related Topics
Higher Education Funding and Financial Aid Higher Education Access and Affordability