The Mixed Methods Blog

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What Happened to Community College Enrollment During the First Years of the Pandemic? It Depends on the Students’ Age

dataviz blog jan9

At the outset of the COVID pandemic, my colleague Davis Jenkins and I looked backward to the Great Recession for clues to how the pandemic would impact community college enrollments, focusing on three segments of the community college population: older adults (25+ years old), recent high school graduates (18–24 years old), and dually enrolled high school students (under 18 years old). Given downward trends before the pandemic for both older adults and recent high school graduates, we questioned whether the pandemic recession would drive an influx of new enrollments following the historical pattern of enrollment increases during economic downturns. We also suspected that enrollment by high school dual enrollment students would continue its dramatic upward trajectory, which started in the early 2000s.

So, what actually happened to community college enrollment across these three age groups during the two years following the start of COVID? For the first time, we can examine detailed state- and college-level trends using the latest federal enrollment data. (Enrollment by age is only fully available in odd-numbered years, making the fall 2021 release very significant!)

In the dashboard below, you can examine undergraduate enrollment trends for your college and state, disaggregated by student age group and race/ethnicity. Below the dashboard, I highlight three major takeaways on how community college enrollment changed during the pandemic based on a more detailed analysis of these data. The fall 2021 enrollment data are now publicly available from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). The data are also accessible by clicking on a chart in the dashboard and using the "download data" option on the bottom toolbar.

Steep community college enrollment declines during the pandemic were felt across most states and colleges—but not all.

Fall 2020—six months into the lockdown—was the first term on record when fewer students enrolled in the fall term at community colleges (6 million) than at public four-year institutions (6.3 million). Despite the sector’s steep enrollment drop, community college students (8.9 million) still far outnumbered those at public four-year institutions (7.3 million) in the full-year undergraduate headcount for 2020–21. Note that unlike IPEDS, we classify the 100+ community colleges that offer bachelor’s degrees as community colleges instead of public four-year institutions to avoid severely underestimating community college enrollment.

In fall 2021, 850,000 fewer students were enrolled in community colleges nationally than in fall 2019, and there were substantial enrollment declines among Native American (-15%), Black (-14%), White (-13%), Hispanic (-12%), and Asian (-11%) students. The strong prior upward trend in community college enrollment among Hispanic students sharply reversed course with the pandemic. However, 15 states increased Hispanic student enrollment in community colleges from fall 2019 to fall 2021, including five states with double-digit percent increases (Georgia, Ohio, Montana, New Hampshire, and Vermont).

Despite the sharp decline in fall enrollment, about 90 community colleges actually gained enrollment from fall 2019 to fall 2021. In many cases, this was the result of expanded high school dual enrollment offerings increasing the number of students under 18. However, some colleges also gained enrollment outside of their dual enrollment offerings: From fall 2019 to fall 2021, about 150 colleges gained enrollment among older adults (25+ years old), and about 55 colleges gained enrollment among recent high school graduates (18–24 years old). And 30 colleges showed gains for both age groups with 66 colleges showing a net gain in enrollment among all students older than 18. Spartanburg Community College, one of the 30 colleges with the largest growth, attributed the gains to a free tuition initiative, according to a December 2021 article. With these new data, researchers can support the recovery of the sector by learning from colleges that managed to grow enrollment throughout the pandemic.

The largest declines in community college enrollment were among recent high school graduates (ages 18–24).

The age group with the largest enrollment declines at community colleges during the first years of the pandemic was not older adults but recent high school graduates (18–24-year-olds). From fall 2019 to fall 2021, 586,000 fewer recent high school graduates were enrolled in community college compared with 277,000 fewer older adults. Transfer is not the reason for the drop, as four-year enrollment of 18–24-year-olds also declined by about 200,000 students. Research from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSC) also showed upward transfer rates declining during the pandemic.

The widespread loss in enrollment among recent high school graduates raises important issues for further study. What happened to the hundreds of thousands of young adults who did not enroll? And how can college leaders build back enrollment among recent high school graduates, who still make up the majority of enrolled community college students nationally?

Dual enrollment continues to grow in most states, and high schoolers now comprise nearly 1 in 5 community college students.

The number of students under 18 enrolled in community colleges nationally grew by only 10,000 students from fall 2019 to fall 2021, a plateauing relative to the steep upward trend pre-pandemic. But data from NSC on fall 2022 enrollments showed an 11.5% growth in high school dual enrollment from fall 2021 to fall 2022, suggesting this plateau was temporary. Even still, dual enrollment continued to grow in 30 states during the pandemic, with double-digit gains in 17 states.

With the decline in enrollments of recent high school graduates and older adults, high school students made up a larger share of community college enrollments. In fall 2021, 18.3% of community college students nationally were under 18, up from 15.7% in fall 2019.

As shown in the map below, some states are far above this national average. High school dual enrollment students comprised more than a quarter of community college fall 2021 enrollment in 15 states and at 325 community colleges across the country. High school students accounted for the majority of fall 2021 enrollment at 31 community colleges.

High School Students as a Percent of Fall 2021 Community College Enrollment

In fall 2021, high school dual enrollment students outnumbered older adult students (25+) at 299 community colleges (up from 263 in fall 2019) and in 13 states (up from 3 states in fall 2019). It is important to note that this applies only to credit enrollment and that many older adult students enroll in noncredit offerings at community colleges. Nevertheless, high school dual enrollment students comprise a large and growing constituency in the community college sector.

In the wake of the pandemic, community college leaders want to understand why enrollment declined among key groups, including recent high school graduates and older adults, as well as Black, Hispanic, and Native American students, and what steps they can take to build back enrollment among these students. These questions are motivating several research projects that we have recently launched at CCRC, including a collaborative research network to accelerate community college pandemic recovery, our work on dual enrollment equity pathways, and our partnership with the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program to study how colleges can unlock opportunity by providing greater post-completion program value to students.

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