Some hope in first-time enrollments?


First-time college student enrollments at community colleges have taken a huge hit during the pandemic — down more than -20% since fall 2019 — but new data show there is an uptick this fall among first-time nontraditional students.

Enrollment of first-time college students this fall dropped -5.3%, compared to -16.4% last fall, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) Research Center. But this fall’s declines of first-time community college students have occurred solely among traditional-age students, those 18 to 20. Enrollments for first-time students among older learners have increased, by as much as 19.2% for those over age 29.

That’s somewhat promising news following double-digit drops among all first-time community college students last fall. Still, community colleges have seen massive declines among all age groups of first-time students since fall 2019, from -19.8% for students older than 29, to -22.9% among students age 21 to 24.

“As the nation continues to emerge from the pandemic and refocus on what the workforce and economy look like in our new reality, it is great to see that students are turning to community colleges to learn or upgrade skills that lead to new or advanced careers,” said Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations at the American Association of Community Colleges. “We have heard from many colleges about programs and grants specifically aimed at increasing enrollments in workforce training programs, and this report shows that it may be having a positive impact on enrollment.”

Backing previous reports

The updated NSC Research Center data continue to support that, overall, community colleges are getting hit hard, though the sector’s rate of decline has slowed significantly since last fall. The trends were generally consistent with NSC’s initial report from last month. Undergraduate enrollments continue to slide among all higher education sectors, but especially among community colleges and private, for-profit, four-year institutions.

Enrollments at community colleges this fall enrollments fell -6.0%, compared to -9.4% last fall. Two-year college enrollments have plummeted -14.8% since 2019.

Public four-year and private, for-profit, four-year institutions have seen steeper drops than last fall. This fall, enrollments at public four-year institutions declined -2.5% compared to -1.6% last fall.

“Today’s data are largely consistent with last month’s report,” Doug Shapiro, executive director of the NSC Research Center, said in a press release. “And with more schools counted, the continued downward trends raise even more troubling concerns for students and institutions struggling to recover from the first pandemic year.”

Nearly 75% of more than 3,600 Title-IV, degree-granting institutions have reported their fall 2021 enrollments to NSC by October 21, representing 13.7 million undergraduate and graduate students.

A look at gender

The continued decrease in community college enrollments among men also has slowed this fall (-4.8%) compared to the huge drop last year (-14.4%). Among women, the decrease has accelerated, from -6.1% to -7.4% this fall. Since fall 2019, male enrollments at public two-year colleges have dropped -18.6%; among females, -13.1%.   

The gender trends are more pronounced among first-time college students at community colleges. The rate of decrease this fall slowed to -1.4% among males, compared to -19.6% in fall 2020. For females, the rate of decrease also slowed, down to -9.4% this fall, compared to -13.7% last fall. Over the past two years, the drop among female first-time college students at community colleges dropped -21.8%; For males, it is -20.7%. 

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.