Concerns about big drops among certain majors

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This fall, the community college sector saw a -10.1% drop in enrollments – or 540,200 fewer students – compared to fall 2019, due to the pandemic and resulting economic recession, according to a final report released today by the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) Research Center.

The report largely mirrors the trends previously noted by the center in previous updates: significant drops in community college enrollments, particularly among first-time college students and students who are Black, Hispanic and Native American. With nearly all U.S. colleges and universities now reporting their fall data to the NSC Research Center, the figures released today include actual numbers rather than just year-to-year percentage changes based on partial reports.

The new data also highlight enrollments by majors, which raises some concerns about whether workers will have the needed skills for certain key industries when the economy rebounds.

“That has serious implications for this generation of students and also for our national economy,” said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the NSC Research Center. He noted students not enrolling will likely find it harder to find jobs in the future because they are not upgrading needed skills, resulting in lower economic productivity in the future.

Higher education advocates have cited myriad reasons for the community college enrollment drop this fall, ranging from conflicts with work and family obligations – especially during the pandemic – to lack of hardware like computers and reliable access to the internet. Also, many people may have presumed the pandemic and its economic impact would only be temporary, so they didn’t want to unnecessarily disrupt their lives if they expected jobs to return in a few months, Shapiro said in a call with reporters on Wednesday.

Big hits in CTE courses

Except for psychology classes, which saw a 4.4% increase, all the other reported community college majors have seen a drop this fall, typically at greater rates than last fall, according to the report. For example:

  • Precision production: -18.4% to 48,204
  • Personal and culinary services: -17.2% drop to 53,116
  • Communications technologies/technicians and support services: -16.2% to 26,572
  • Mechanic and repair technologies/technicians: -15.9% to 91,201
  • Homeland security/law enforcement/firefighting and related protective services: -14.7% to 162,080
  • Engineering technologies and related engineering-related fields: -14.5% to 99,590
  • Construction trades: -10.9% to 54,496

“These are generally considered to be high-demand vocational skills, but they’re all in hands-on fields that are likely very difficult to teach online,” Shapiro said. “That’s part of the impact of the pandemic and the recession.”

Liberal arts and sciences, general studies and humanities (including undeclared students) – which comprise the largest number of community college majors – saw an -11.9% drop to roughly 1.6 million students.

The data also confirm that far fewer men are attending community college this fall. Over the past few years, the number of men attending community college has declined at a greater rate than women. For example, in fall 2019, there was a -2.2% drop among men compared to an -0.8% dip for women. But this fall, there are 1.9 million male students, which is a -15% decrease compared to last fall. For women, the rate dropped -6.8%, to 2.9 million.

Dwindling dual enrollment

The number of students ages 18 to 24 at public two-year colleges dropped this fall by -11.9%, to 2.6 million. Last fall, the decrease was -1.5%. Among students over age 24, the decrease this fall was -10.7%, down to 1.6 million.

Students under age 18, who are mostly high school students in dual-enrollment classes at community colleges, saw a -0.5% decrease, to 650,965. Last fall and in fall 2018, the rate increased both years by 5.9%. 

The dual-enrollment figure is troubling to many community colleges that have relied heavily on dual enrollment as their overall enrollment dropped over the past few years. At some two-year colleges, dually enrolled students comprise as much as 40% of the overall enrollment. Historically, fewer students attend community college when the economy is humming because they opt to work instead. Because the economy was hot before Covid, community colleges had seen steady declines over the past few years.

The dual-enrollment drop this fall is likely due to challenges mainly faced at high schools, many of which have shifted to some form of remote learning, Shapiro said. Because of the administrative and logistical challenges of running the program during the pandemic, the schools are likely opting to put a hold on dual-enrollment programs until students return to in-person learning, he said.  

However, the under-18 enrollment at public four-year institutions increased this fall by 3.3% (or 10,200 more students), to 320,102. Last fall, the rate at public four-year colleges increased by 0.5%. In fall 2018, it increased by 3.0%.

Community colleges still enrolled most dual enrollees (61.9%) this fall, but the proportion is 0.8 percentage points below last year’s share, the research center said. Public four-year institutions comprised 30.5% of all dual enrollments this fall. 

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.