Finally, a spring enrollment bump


Enrollment at community colleges finally saw an uptick this spring. Like in the fall, continued increases in dual enrollment and first-time students are the main drivers, according to a National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) Research Center report based on preliminary data.

Enrollment at community colleges grew 2.1% this spring compared to last spring. Primarily associate-degree-granting baccalaureate institutions (PABs) continued to see a slide, down -2.8% from spring 2022. Last year, spring enrollment at public two-year colleges was down -3.9% and -6.9% at PABs.

Even with the small and hopeful increases, community college enrollments are still down by about -14% since the pandemic started, said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the NSC Research Center.

“There’s still a long way to go, but clearly [it’s] a nice sign of improvement in community colleges this term,” he said Tuesday during a conference call with reporters.

Driving forces

Dual enrollment at community colleges this spring increased 12.8%, compared to its 2.9% boost in spring 2022, the report shows. And enrollment of first-time students at community colleges increased 13.5% and by 3.2% at PABs, compared to 10% and 2%, respectively, in spring 2022. The report noted that spring freshmen increased across all higher education sectors, with most spring freshmen attending a community college (58.8%).

Another promising sign for community colleges: first-time enrollments this spring are up across all ages, not just among traditional college-age students. In fact, some of the largest jumps were among older first-time students, Shapiro noted.

“That reverses what has been a stark divide,” he said.  

Over the pandemic, enrollment among adult learners took an especially big hit and had continued to see steady decreases.

But this spring, first-time community college students ages 30 to older increased 21.5%, following a -0.5% drop last spring. And first-time students ages 25 to 29 increased 10.6%, compared to a -6.3% drop in spring 2022. For traditional college-age students (18 to 20), first-time enrollments increased 11.4% — though a slower pace than 21.5% last spring — and for students ages 21 to 24 it increased 13.9%, following a -3.5% drop in spring 2022.

Aside from first-time students, enrollment among adult learners was still down this spring. Enrollment of students ages 18 to 20 increased by 4.6%, following a -2.5% decline last spring. Enrollment of learners ages 25 to 29 continued to drop, though at a lower-yet-significant pace: -6.7% compared to -11.3% in spring 2022.

Broader picture

Overall, undergraduate enrollment remained steady this spring (0.2%) following two straight years of steep pandemic-related losses, the report shows. Only the public four-year sector continued to experience undergraduate enrollment declines this term (-0.9%).

Public two-year colleges were already experiencing enrollment decreases prior to the Covid pandemic, which exacerbated the decline as many students decided to put their education on hold. The pace of the draconian drops at community colleges since the start of the pandemic essentially leveled last fall, and the new spring enrollment data provides hope that the numbers will continue to climb this summer and into the fall.

The NSC Research Center findings are preliminary as of February 23, 2023, capturing 8.5 million spring enrollments that represent 54% of the Clearinghouse-participating institutions. Less than half of community colleges and PABs have reported their information. Results can change as more data come in for the spring, the center noted. The center expects to release final spring enrollment data at the end of May.

Other key areas

Enrollment among associate-degree-seeking students increased slightly (0.3%), while bachelor’s-degree-seeking students dipped again (-0.6%). Enrollment among certificate programs continued to grow, 5.5% for undergrads. Among those undergrads, computer and information science saw a whopping 18.3% increase, while enrollment in business, management and marketing grew 8.9%, and mechanic and repair technologies also saw an 8% increase in enrollment.

Latinx were the only race/ethnicity that saw an increase this spring (2.1%) at public two-year colleges, though declines among all other races/ethnicities were at a significantly lower rate than last spring, led by a -5.4% drop among white students and -4.1% drop among Asian students.

Women continue to lag in enrollment at community colleges. Men saw a larger enrollment increase (3.7%) this spring than women (0.1%).

While four-year college enrollment declined at rural/town (-2.7%) and urban (-0.4%) campuses, community college enrollment grew across all campus settings. Among public two-year colleges this spring, city campuses saw a 2.8% increase, suburb campuses saw a 1.3% increase and rural/town campuses saw a 1.6% increase. Last spring, all campus types saw decreases.

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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.