‘No quick turnaround in sight’

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The dramatic enrollment declines that community colleges experienced in the fall will likely continue this spring, especially among students of color and males, according to preliminary data collected by the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) Research Center.

Six weeks into the spring semester, community colleges reported a -9.5% drop in enrollments compared to pre-pandemic spring 2020, the center said Thursday in an enrollment update. Public four-year institutions, meanwhile, are down -3.3% compared to last spring.

“There is no quick turnaround in sight for undergraduate enrollment declines driven by the pandemic,” said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the NSC Research Center. “Community colleges remain, by far, the most affected sector of higher education.”

Hurdles remain

Community colleges hoped the spring term would yield some good news on enrollments, especially after the huge drop in overall enrollments in the sector last fall. Many two-year college leaders and advocates crossed their fingers that, with the availability of Covid vaccines and optimism that life may start to edge back to normal, perhaps their students also may start to return.

However, it appears that isn’t happening the spring.

“Those students and families, I think, are facing the largest hurdles in terms of staying enrolled or starting new programs,” Shapiro said of community college students. Many of them, for example, still struggle with balancing jobs and family obligations, finding childcare and more.

Community colleges were already experiencing enrollment declines in recent years, due mainly to a surging economy. Typically, enrollments at community colleges decrease when the economy is humming and employers seek workers; enrollments increase when the economy cools and the labor market tightens. That has not happened in the current economic crisis.

“Colleges, high schools and policymakers will need to work together to help bring learners back into higher education, particularly among disadvantage groups who are struggling the most during the pandemic and the recession,” Shapiro said.

Two-year colleges around the country have been developing strategies and programs to retain their students and bring in new ones. Many are hopeful they can offer more in-person classes soon.

“As we transition back to in-person learning, community colleges are working diligently to retain the students they have and connect with the students that are not attending to provide the needed programs and support services that will allow them to enroll and be successful,” said Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations at the American Association of Community Colleges. “The new normal is being strategically and intentionally designed to ensure access and success across the curriculum.”

NSC’s figures are based on data it received as of February 11. They reflect about 6.7 million students, and about 43% of all colleges and universities that would normally report to the Clearinghouse. The data represent about 38% of public two-year colleges, covering roughly 30% of enrollments in the sector.

The numbers are expected to fluctuate a bit as more data is reported to NSC.

Double-digit drops among students of color

As seen in the fall, the pandemic has hit community college students of color and men especially hard. That has continued into the spring. Among racial/ethnic groups at community colleges, Native Americans saw the largest spring-to-spring drop, -17.3%. It was followed by: Latinx (-13.5%), Blacks (-13.4%), Whites (-11%) and Asians (-8.4%).

The one group of students who saw increases in enrollment prior to the pandemic — Latinx women — saw their numbers decline from last spring by -9.8%.

In terms of gender, enrollment of men at community colleges continues to get hammered (-14.5%), compared to women (-9.5%). Men have seen double-digit decreases from ages 18 to older than 29, with ages 21 to 24 seeing a whopping -17% decline, compared to -10.9 percent among women of the same age.

The NSC data also show that community colleges are seeing decreases among international students. Overall, fewer students from other countries were already attending U.S. community colleges over the past few years, but the pandemic appears to have hastened that decline. Over the past year, international student enrollment at public two-year colleges dropped -22.9%, compared to -9.4% last spring. The decline was more significant among men (-25.9%) than women (-21%).

Older learners

Community colleges this spring are seeing a big drop among traditional-age college students (ages 18 to 20, and 21 to 24), with a decrease of -12.8% and -12%, respectively. Older learners (age 25 to 29), saw smaller declines, -6.6% compared to last spring, -5.5%.

The slower pace of declines among older learners, even from the fall, may suggest that some of the “normal recession pattern”—when adult learners return to college during a recession—may be happening, Shapiro said. Still, it is not at the same levels as during a typical recession, he noted.

Shapiro added that as the economy rebounds, it doesn’t mean students still will necessarily return to college. Adults may opt primarily to seek jobs instead of attending college, he said.

Dual-enrollment drop

It also appears dual-enrollment has cooled during the pandemic. Enrollment in two-year colleges by students under age 18, who represent students mostly dually enrolled in community colleges, decreased -1.9%. Last spring pre-pandemic, there was a 10.2% increase among this group.

Over the past several years, many community colleges across the country looked to dual enrollment — which saw increases of 5% to 10% annually — to help stem overall enrollment declines.

“It’s quite a dramatic decline to see those falling even 2% now at community colleges,” Shapiro said.

Specific associate-degree programs

Enrollment in associate-degree programs saw a deeper dip, dropping -10.5% compared to pre-pandemic spring 2020. In the fall, enrollment in two-year degree programs dropped -9% compared to the previous fall.

Among the programs highlighted in the NSC Research Center report, associate-degree programs in security and protective services saw the largest decline, -13.9% compared to last spring (when it saw pre-pandemic declines of -5.4%). Health-related associate degrees seemed to fare better, dropping -4.1% compared to spring 2020, when it saw a decline of -3.1%. Computer and information sciences and support services — which actually saw an increase of 1% in pre-pandemic spring 2020 — experienced a -5.2% drop this spring.

Urban campuses see larger declines

Community colleges in cities saw a slightly larger decline in spring-to-spring enrollments than in rural areas, -10.3% compared to -9.9%. Two-year colleges in towns saw a -9.2% drop, and suburban community colleges a -8.1% decline.

Although public and private four-year institutions saw significantly smaller decreases, those drops occurred largely at colleges and universities in rural areas, according to the NSC Research Center.

About the Author

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