A snapshot of the past decade


Enrollment at two-year institutions has fallen nearly 40% since 2010, according to an annual federal report that covers a swath of information about education in the U.S. On a note of good news: the number of associate degrees conferred over the same period increased by 10%.

Between fall 2010 and fall 2021, total undergraduate enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions dropped 15%, from 18.1 million to 15.4 million, according to the U.S. Education Department’s “Report on the Condition of Education 2023,” which was released Wednesday. Enrollment decreased by 39% at two-year institutions (from 7.7 million to 4.7 million), while undergraduate numbers at four-year institutions increased by 4% (from 10.4 million to 10.8 million).

Much of the decline is likely due to dropping enrollments prompted by the Covid pandemic, which started in spring 2020. But community colleges were already facing declining enrollments before the pandemic, partly a result of a strong economy, Historically, students who typically would enroll at a community college tend to work when the economy is humming and there are plenty of available jobs. When the economy slows, community college enrollments usually increase as more students seek to attain a credential or upgrade their skills for a better job.

As other reports have show, many high school students who graduated during the Covid years didn’t immediately enroll in college as they may have otherwise. Changes in the overall immediate enrollment rate was primarily driven by a decrease in the rate for two-year institutions, from 27% in 2010 to 19% in 2020, according to the report. The rate for four-year institutions over the same period stayed at about 43%.

The report highlights data on postsecondary enrollments, changes in institutional landscape, faculty characteristics, degree fields and degree completion, and student loans and repayments.

A boost in associate degrees

Despite the dire drops in enrollment at two-year colleges, the federal data show there was an uptick in credential attainment over the same period. Between 2010-11 and 2020-21, two-year institutions conferred 1 million associate degrees, a 10% increase from 943,500. Meanwhile, fewer certificates were conferred in 2020-21 (991,400) than in 2010-11 (1 million).

In terms of most popular degree fields, health professions and related programs accounted for 17% of associate-degree majors in 2020-21 and 13% of bachelor’s-degree majors. Additionally, STEM fields comprised 8% of associate degrees and 21% of bachelor’s degrees. As a note, more recent data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows that fewer students may be majoring in health and related fields. Some education advocates speculate that it could also be related to Covid, as fewer people may be interested in jobs in higher-stress healthcare fields.

Among students who began at two-year institutions in 2013, completion rates eight years after entry were higher among full-time students (45% for non-first-time students and 37% for first-time students) than among part-time students (24% for non-first-time students and 19% for first-time students). Transfer rates eight years after entry were higher among non-first-time students (38% for part-time students and 26% for full-time students) than among first-time students (25% for part-time students and 22% among full-time students).

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.
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