Enrollment declines continued this spring

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Community college enrollments continued a significant downward slide this spring, but an increase among their freshmen offers a sliver of hope for larger increases in the fall, based on a new report by the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) Research Center.

Community college enrollments decreased -7.8% from last spring, which is about 351,000 fewer students — that’s more than half of the total undergraduate spring enrollment drop of 662,000 (-4.7%), the report says. Since spring 2020, the public two-year sector has seen enrollments crash by more than 827,000 students. Among all postsecondary institutions, undergraduate enrollment has declined by nearly 1.4 million (-9.4%) during the pandemic, the center notes.

Doug Shapiro, executive director of the NSC Research Center, said he thought enrollments would start to rebound a little as overall concerns about the pandemic subsided and colleges re-opened campuses. But that didn’t appear to happen this spring. He speculated that it could be, in part, that more people are questioning the value of a degree, and whether it leads to better-paying jobs, especially in the current market where employers are offering top-dollar for desperately needed workers.

Some hope among freshmen

If there is any light at the end of the tunnel, it may be in the figure for first-time students this spring. Nearly 340,000 total freshmen enrolled for the first time this spring, with nearly six out of 10 (58.4%) starting at a community college, the report says. Community college freshmen increased by 6,000 students (3.1%), after experiencing declines the previous spring of 23,000 students (-10.7%). However, this spring’s growth was not enough to return community college freshman enrollment to pre-pandemic levels, with the current freshmen numbers still running -7.9 percent (17,000 students) below spring 2020’s levels, the center notes.

The NSC Research Center warns about being too optimistic with the spring 2022 first-time freshmen figures, noting that spring enrollments are much smaller than fall enrollments, comprising only about 20% of freshmen enrollments throughout the year.

“It remains to be seen if this translates into a larger freshman recovery this fall,” Shapiro said Wednesday during a call with reporters.

By race and ethnicity, Asian and Latinx freshmen at community colleges grew this spring 2022. For Asians, there was 15% (1,022 students) increase, for a spring enrollment of 7,802 Asian freshmen. Among Latinx students, the increase was 3.9% (1,464 students), for a 38,856 Latinx freshman total. In contrast, Black freshmen enrollment was at 22,986 this spring, which is a -5.8% drop (1,405 students) from last spring, when this population already saw a -19.0% decrease.

CTE on the rise

The data also supports anecdotal information that a growing number of students are going to community college for the skilled trades, with double-digit enrollment increases in majors such as mechanic and repair (11.5%, 9,950 students), culinary (12.7%, 6,170 students), construction (19.3%, 11,140 students) and precision and production (16.7%, 7,740 students). However, only the growth of construction majors led to pre-pandemic levels of enrollment, the report says.

The increases in the skilled trades are likely due to several factors, Shapiro said, including current labor market demands and pay, a return to in-person learning for many career and technical education programs, and colleges stepping up their marketing and outreach efforts.

Majors at community colleges with the largest percentage of enrollment decreases this spring include: physical science (-17.0%), mathematics and statistics (-6.9%) social science (-5.5%), communication, journalism and related programs (-4.5%), English language and literature/letters (-4.0%), and security and protective service (-3.9%).

Other stats to watch

The report also includes information based on gender, intensity of enrollment and age, as well as enrollments by state.

  • There were more than 462,000 (-4.6%) fewer women students this spring. This is more than double of the losses experienced the previous year, and leads to a total two-year enrollment drop of 665,000 female students. Women declined the most at community colleges (-9.2% or 251,000 fewer women versus 100,000 or 5.6% fewer men).
  • For a second straight year, community colleges suffered double-digit declines in full-time students with an -11% drop (168,000 students). Since 2020, full-time enrollment at two-year colleges has dropped -20.9% (372,000 students). Part-time enrollments also decreased this spring, by -6.2%, on top of the -8.5% decline in spring 2021.
  • Overall enrollment of adults over age 24 fell by -5.8% (354,000 students), with half of the decrease seen at community colleges (-10.8%, 176,000 students).
  • There is also a continued decrease among students younger than age 18, who are mainly dually enrolled, which dropped -1.1% this spring, on top of the -1.2% decline last spring. In spring 2020, there was an 8.7% increase, which at the time was a bright spot for community colleges that were already seeing steady decreases in enrollments because many adults were opting to work during the red-hot economy rather than attend college.

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.