The Mixed Methods Blog

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Why Has Community College Enrollment Declined and What Can We Do About It?

why has community college enrollment declined

Community college enrollment spiked in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, when over a million new students who had lost their jobs came to community colleges to further their education and retrain.

As the economy and the labor market started to recover around 2011, many of these students went back to work, and community college enrollment started to drop. The decline continued over the next decade, and then took a steeper dive during the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, enrollment data from spring 2023 suggest that students are starting to come back to community colleges, though total numbers are well below pre-pandemic levels.

The enrollment decline is a crisis for many community colleges, which rely on tuition revenue to fund their operations. But it is also a crisis for communities and states because community colleges are indispensable providers of accessible, relatively low-cost education and training to help individuals secure middle-class jobs and meet the demand for skilled workers in critical fields, such as nurses and first responders.

The reasons for the decline are complex. To help college and state policy leaders figure out how to build back enrollment, it is useful to understand the larger economic and demographic forces at play behind the drop in student numbers and how colleges can respond.

Why did the economic shocks of the Great Recession and the COVID pandemic have such a large impact on community colleges and their students? One reason is that community college students are disproportionately drawn from working-class families. Almost a third of public two-year college students are 25 or older, and about two thirds attend part-time. The same fraction works while enrolled. While working-class jobs returned after the Great Recession, incomes took longer to recover. On average, it took until just before the pandemic for these families to return to the level of income they had had before the 2008 recession. Many people in this situation opted to stay employed to pay the rent and put food on the table—they didn’t feel they had the luxury to also go to college. Others did enroll, but when the pandemic hit, and the low-wage service jobs that many community college students and their families rely on were wiped out overnight, students and potential students returned to survival mode and cancelled college plans.

Another reason for the decline in enrollment is that during the past decade we have seen an intensifying trend in which jobs that pay enough to support a family increasingly require degrees—at least an applied associate degree but in most cases a bachelor’s degree. Because the education required to “step up” to a much better job got larger, we saw enrollment fall in community college career-technical programs, particularly among men in manufacturing and other fields outside of healthcare. This was exacerbated by the fact that workers could get $15 an hour or more for relatively low-skilled work at Amazon, Walmart, and, in cities, even at places like McDonald’s—enough to make such jobs attractive in the short term but not enough to support a family over the long term.

Another trend hurting community college enrollment is that more students who want a bachelor’s degree are bypassing community college and starting at a public four-year college. Preparing students to transfer to bachelor’s programs is a big focus of most community colleges nationally, but research CCRC and others have done shows that the path to a bachelor’s degree for students who start at a community college is confusing. As a result, too many students who want to get a bachelor’s degree end up earning a lot of community college credits but never actually transfer, and too many students who do transfer earn far more credits than they need for a bachelor’s in their major. This has pushed traditional college-age students toward four-year colleges.

Some of these factors are beyond colleges’ control, though they have to contend with their effects. But there are things colleges can do to build back enrollment. Improving retention would go a long way to reverse enrollment declines. Most students who start at a community college do not end up earning a credential. Moreover, nearly 40% of students who start at a community college and over half of the lowest income starters leave higher education in their first year.

Even before the pandemic, many community colleges nationally recognized the need to improve retention and increase completion rates, and they have been making big changes in practice to address the challenges. Among other things, many colleges more clearly mapped programs to immediate placement in jobs paying living wages and to transfer to bachelor’s programs with no excess credits. They reorganized new student onboarding and advising around broad fields of study to help students explore their interests, connect with faculty and other students in their fields, and develop full-program educational plans. They replaced prerequisite sequences of remediation with college courses with integrated academic support. Colleges that took these steps were better able to weather the pandemic and have been able to stabilize enrollment during a period of unprecedented challenges for colleges and their students. Yet, while we have seen improvements in outcomes for all students, substantial gaps in success among students by income and race remain.

To improve student outcomes further and to close equity gaps, colleges need to build on their successes in at least three ways. Each of these is an area of focus in CCRC’s current research:

Help new students explore, connect, and plan a program in more personalized ways. This is particularly important for those who are often not well served by higher education, including returning adult students, first-generation students, and incarcerated students.

Review and revamp all programs (and develop new ones) to ensure that they prepare students to secure good jobs or transfer with no excess credits in high-opportunity fields and are offered on schedules and through delivery modes (flex-hybrid, etc.) designed for busy students with limited time and money.

Rethink high school dual enrollment courses and programs so they work as on-ramps to college degree programs with strong career paths, especially for students from underserved groups. High school students account for 1 in 5 community college students nationally.

Making these big changes costs money. But state funding hasn’t kept pace with rising costs, leaving colleges to rely increasingly on tuition to meet their budgets (which makes them more vulnerable to enrollment declines). Unlike other colleges and universities, even public ones, community colleges have sought to keep tuition low to ensure access and, in some states, have been prohibited from raising tuition despite high inflation.

While policymakers need to hold colleges accountable for implementing reforms needed to recruit, retain, and graduate more students, they also need to provide a level of funding adequate to offer teaching and student supports at a level of quality that is necessary to educate students for family-supporting jobs in today’s economy.

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