Community colleges see drops in summer enrollment

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A snapshot of enrollment this summer shows that community colleges, in general, saw a significant drop, with Black students, in particular, experiencing significant declines.

While public and private four-year colleges saw a modest enrollment bump — 2.8 percent and 4 percent, respectively — for courses mainly held online due to the pandemic, public two-year colleges saw a 5.6 percent decline from May through July, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) Research Center.

Summer enrollment fell at community colleges regardless of gender, age, race and ethnicity, or location, except for Asian students and high school dual-enrollment students, the center said (see charts at the end of this article). There are a few data points that particularly stand out. One is the huge drop among males at two-year public colleges, who saw a 13.6 percent decrease this summer compared to last summer. Summer enrollment among two-year college women saw a slight dip of 0.5 percent.

The center also tracked summer enrollment by credential type, with credentials typically issued by community colleges showing major declines. Enrollment in undergraduate certificate programs saw a decrease of 11.7 percent and associate degree programs saw a 5 percent drop. All other types of credentials — bachelor’s degrees, post-baccalaureate certificates, master’s degrees, doctoral, first professional and graduate certificates — saw increases, ranging from 3.1 percent to 7.2 percent.

The report launches a new research series from the NSC Research Center that will track the effects of COVID-19 on postsecondary students, using the latest data available.

“These data offer the first opportunity to grasp the full range of effects on students and institutions of the host of disruptions the nation has weathered this summer,” Doug Shapiro, executive director of the NSC Research Center, said in a release. “The equity implications for higher education in the fall are becoming more clear: Many of those most affected by the pandemic also appear to be losing access to college classes, even at community colleges and rural institutions that have traditionally served them.”

With the job loss that has accompanied the pandemic, it is not surprising that many students were not able to enroll this summer, said Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations at the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).

“The decrease is students of color enrolling is striking considering that community colleges serve the majority of underrepresented students,” she said. “Equity efforts were well underway prior to the pandemic, and this illustrates the urgency of that work that is taking place across the country.”

Some surprises

Prior to the pandemic, community colleges as a sector were experiencing a slow decline in enrollments due mainly to the healthy economy and plenty of available jobs. But the coronavirus changed that. An NSC Research Center report released in early August showed that the pandemic did not appear to have had any major effect on students’ enrollment status during the spring term, regardless of demographic characteristics or institution types. However, there were early signs of broader effects underway, such as more students taking leaves of absence than in pre-pandemic years, particularly among African-Americans and Hispanics.

Anecdotally, it seemed like many community colleges were experiencing a slight bump in summer enrollment, though they did, in general, expect a decline in fall numbers. The NSC Research Center used data through July because most summer courses — about 80 percent — were done by the end of July, and the center wanted to share that information as soon as possible so colleges and universities could use it, Shapiro told Community College Daily.

He noted that many expectations of what the summer would yield didn’t appear to happen. For example, community colleges tend to see enrollment increases when the economy slows or slips. Some higher education proponents thought the rise in unemployment due to the pandemic would prompt, at least for the summer, more adults toward community colleges to upgrade skills or embark on new careers. Many colleges also hoped students — particularly those who initially planned to attend a four-year college — would take some summer courses at community colleges to test if that could be an option for the fall.

Because of issues with access to laptops and the internet, coupled with concerns about safety, childcare and work, some higher education researchers expected a drop in summer enrollment among students from lower-income families and people of color. The summer drop did occur for Black students across all higher education sectors, and especially in community colleges, the data show. But a big drop didn’t happen among Hispanic students; only a modest one. And, like last summer, there was an increase among Hispanics attending four-year colleges.

At this point, there are more questions than answers pertaining to what the data show, Shapiro said.

“In unprecedented situations like this, our preconceptions could be our worst enemies,” he said.

Shapiro speculated that a “triple storm” — the health pandemic, its affect on the economy and social unrest across the country — could be keeping many Black students from attending community college.

“That is a possible clue as to why there might be such a big difference between the impact on Black students and the impact on Hispanics, who are otherwise assumed to be roughly equally affected in terms of employment and economic effects,” he said.

Another surprise in the data was the decline at online and for-profit institutions. Again, there was an expectation that many adults who found themselves suddenly out of work would take the quickest and easiest options, which are often online. That didn’t happen.

“It suggests to me that the level of uncertainty about the employment picture for students is really having an impact,” Shapiro said. With uncertainty about nearly all jobs and what employment will look like as a result of the pandemic, adults seem to be delaying plans to upgrade their skills or training for new careers until there’s a clearer picture, he said.

A deeper dive

When examining summer enrollment by race, Black students at community colleges experienced the largest drops, followed by White students — 10.5 percent and 8 percent, respectively. For associate degrees, the decrease was 9.9 percent for Black students, followed by White students at 7.4 percent. Hispanic students saw a 2.3 percent dip in summer enrollment in associate-degree courses, after seeing a 3 percent increase last summer. Black community college students also saw huge drops in summer enrollments in undergraduate certificate programs, as did White students — 15.8 percent and 13.3 percent. Hispanic students saw a 5 percent drop.

In both associate-degree and certificate programs, only Asian students saw slight enrollment increases this summer.

Another interesting bit of information highlighted in the report: public two-year colleges saw the largest percentage increase in full-time students among all types of higher education institutions. Their enrollment increased 7.3 percent, compared to a 6.1 percent increase for full-time students at public four-year institutions. Last summer, enrollment among full-time community college students was 3.8 percent lower than the previous year.

However, there also was a decline in part-time community college enrollment this summer, a 7.5 percent drop. No other higher education sector saw a drop among part-time students.

When looking at summer enrollment by age, public two-year colleges saw a drop among all ages — except those 17 or younger, which likely reflects high school students enrolling in some community college courses. That age group saw a 9.6 percent jump in enrollment. Declines for the four other age groups ranged from a 4.7 percent to a 8.1 percent.

Community colleges in rural areas saw a larger drop in summer enrollment than counterparts in cities, an 8.5 percent decline compared to a 5 parent decline. Two-year colleges in the suburbs saw the lowest decline at 4.7 percent.

More data on the way

The NSC Research Center is issuing monthly enrollment reports that will included updated information, Shapiro said. Next month it will release early first-look data on fall enrollments. In late October, the center will release a report on the pandemic’s effects on students transfers, mobility and progress.

“There’s a lot coming up,” Shapiro said.

Ascendium Education Group and the ECMC Foundation are supporting the research.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
Matthew Dembicki edits Community College Daily and serves as associate vice president of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges.