Community college freshman enrollment up 6.1%


Undergraduate enrollments seem to have stabilized this fall — including at community colleges — and there’s been an uptick among freshmen, with public two-year colleges seeing the biggest bump, according to final fall enrollment data from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) Research Center.

In fall 2022, overall undergraduate enrollment shrunk by -0.6% (about 94,000 students) compared to fall 2021. Among community colleges, enrollment was essentially flat (0.4%, 16,700 students), though dual enrollment largely drove that increase.

“This year, community colleges overall actually grew slightly, by almost 0.5%, but that was largely due to a large chunk — 12% — in the number of dual-enrolled high school students,” said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the NSC Research Center, during a press call on Wednesday.

Enrollment at public two-year colleges would be down roughly -1.5% to -2% if dual enrollment was excluded, he said.

Freshmen bump

First-time freshmen gained in all institutional sectors, with the largest numerical growth among community colleges (6.1%, or 42,000 students), followed by public four-years (3.9%, or 34,000). Shapiro observed that the figure likely includes not only students who graduated high school last spring, but also students who graduated over the past two years who postponed enrollment during the pandemic, as well as adult learners who may be going to college for the first time.

Latino and Asian freshmen bounced back at community colleges, with fall-to-fall enrollment increases of 10.9% (16,913) and 14.8% (3,669), respectively. Black freshman enrollment at community colleges increased by 2.6% (1,923), while white first-year student enrollment at two-year colleges continued to decline at -2.1% (5,394) for fall 2022.

And while enrollments are no longer in a free fall, they are nowhere close to where they were prior to the pandemic, the center noted. Since fall 2019, undergraduate enrollment is down about 1.2 million students, it says. Community colleges lost about 800,000 students (5.3 million in fall 2019 compared to 4.5 million in fall 2022), according to the data.

“It is encouraging to start seeing signs of a recovery in the numbers of new freshmen,” Shapiro said. “Although freshmen classes are still well below pre-pandemic levels, especially at community colleges, the fact that they are swinging upward in all sectors is a positive indicator for the future.”

Gender gap

The center’s report shows an overall enrollment increase among men while enrollment for women continues its pandemic-accelerated slide. The trend is mirrored at community colleges, with an increase for men (2.6%, or 45,410) after several years of decreases, and a drop among women (-1.3%, or 32,038). The continued decline among women — while at a significantly slower rate — is on top of huge decreases of -8% in fall 2021 and -7% in fall 2020, the data show.

Both genders were experiencing declines at community colleges even prior to the pandemic, which only exacerbated the drop: 745,489 fewer women attended public two-year colleges this fall than in fall 2017. For men, the decline over the same period is 703,639.

A look at majors

At community colleges nationwide, the decline in liberal arts enrollments stabilized (-0.1%) after a big drop during the pandemic (-19.8% since fall 2019), according to the report. Health profession enrollment continued to see a decline (-4.5%, or 31,263 students), as did biological and biomedical sciences enrollments (-12.1%, or 11,791 students).

Computer and information sciences programs saw growth for the first time since fall 2019, increasing by 7.2% (14,232) in fall 2022. Construction trades also saw an increase again (7.2%, or 4,504 students this fall, compared to 15.5% in fall 2021) as did personal and culinary services (8%, or 4,237 students, compared to 2.3% in fall 2021). Enrollment in precision production also increased again by 7.4% (3,861) on top of the 6.3% increase in fall 2021.

In addition to state enrollment by sector, the report details enrollment by major field of study at the state level.

Regional trends

The report also tracks regional trends. Overall undergraduate enrollments in the Northeast and Midwest declined at about double the national rate, losing 24,000 (-1.1%) and 34,000 (-1.2%) undergraduates, respectively. Enrollment grew slightly in the West and the South (0.5%, 20,000 students, and 0.2%, 8,000 students, respectively).

The regions are on the cusp of overall population declines — especially among youth — which will likely expand, Shapiro said. And although some regions are seeing growth, they too will likely in the coming years see lower numbers due to declining younger populations, he said.

The center also for the first time in its enrollment reporting added a category on primarily associate-degree-granting baccalaureate institutions, though it includes a mix of public, independent and for-profit institutions, obscuring the impact of the enrollment change for all public community colleges that the American Association of Community Colleges recognizes as community colleges.

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.