The Pandemic and Community College Enrollment

Blog Post
Photo by Changbok Ko on Unsplash
Sept. 2, 2020

What happened to enrollment at community colleges this summer in the wake of COVID-19? We are starting to get a clearer picture and it is not pretty. A new report from the National Student Clearinghouse finds that community colleges saw a drop in summer enrollment, particularly for Black students whose enrollment declined by 10 percent compared to last summer. Community colleges also saw drops in enrollment for Lantinx and white students. These enrollment dips are troubling for community colleges who were counting on the historic, counter-cyclical enrollment surge in tough economic times to make up for the coming cuts in state higher education funding.

Over the late spring and summer, we have spoken with community college leaders watching these trends playing out at their institutions in real time, and we have some thoughts about how they might play out into the next academic year. We conducted 20 calls with community colleges, tribal colleges, community college systems, and community college associations across 15 states. These interviews have been meant to explore how colleges in general--and their non-degree career preparation programs in particular--are faring in this tumultuous time.

In line with the data released from the National Student Clearinghouse, we found that enrollment dips are not affecting all colleges or populations equally. Many of the state associations and systems we spoke to say this recession is different. Instead of all colleges seeing enrollment increases or declines as usually happens, some colleges are seeing large spikes in enrollment while others are seeing stark drops. One head of a state association of community colleges told us that, “There's [usually] a range, maybe folks are up 2 percent or are down 2 percent...to hear a big swing like some are 10 percent down...is surprising.” Whether a college’s enrollment is up or down seems to depend on the type of student they enroll. Pell-eligible, Latinx, Black, and adult enrollments seem to be down and this highlights how--yet again--the pandemic is affecting the most vulnerable in the most adverse ways. Colleges had hope that these students are just delaying enrollment and will enroll closer to or during the fall but that hope may be fading.

One of the reasons we may be seeing this discouraging enrollment picture is that unemployed people are not yet coming back to college for retraining. While many individual community colleges reported strong enrollment for the summer, much of that enrollment is from traditional freshmen or high school dual enrollment students looking to get a head start on their college education with a cheaper option. One representative from a community college that focuses on CTE programs told us, “We are prepared for a 20 to 30 percent enrollment hit.” We heard several reasons why adults may not yet be coming back to community colleges for retraining:

  • Uncertainty over where the labor market is going and where it will end up. Most unemployed people seem to be hoping that their jobs will come back when the pandemic eases. The additional federal unemployment benefits have allowed people the financial room to wait it out. Now that the additional unemployment benefits have expired, we may see more adults coming back to community colleges in the fall.
  • Uncertainty over preK-12 schools opening in the fall. Many colleges think parents are putting off their own education to see what happens with their children’s schooling. A college administrator told us “I think we've only had like four school districts here who have announced plans for fall. I'm a working parent of two kids, and I don't know.” Now that many schools have chosen to start the semester online, that may cause adults to delay their education to support their children’s remote learning.
  • Uncertainty over online and hands on training options. Some colleges shared a sense that many unemployed people don’t necessarily want to learn online and that they are also fearful of engaging in in-person learning at this time. One community college representative told us, it's “understandable that students are saying, ‘I'm just going to defer a year, because it's not worth the cost to me to not have the experience I want.’ I think that there's a ton of credence to that.”

The truth is we don’t know what will happen with community college enrollment going into the fall but these trends provide reasons for concern. We need to keep community colleges strong and whole through this crisis so they can help address the continued economic fallout from the pandemic. And we shouldn’t just be concerned about colleges but also about the people who will need to seek training to rejoin the labor market. The federal government needs to provide more funds allocated based on headcount to shore up community colleges. At the same time, Congress has the opportunity to create a new version of the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) program to foster innovative new programs at community colleges that will help us rebuild our economy for the new century. TAACCCT was there for community colleges and their students when they needed it. And ten years later, we need that level of support again, as well as additional resources for students. Our colleges and communities are counting on it.

Related Topics
Higher Education Access and Affordability Higher Education Data and Transparency Adult Education