A final report on college spring enrollments shows a slight bump for community colleges — a promising sign for public two-year institutions that are facing a huge task in raising enrollments after suffering draconian drops during the Covid pandemic.
Like in its preliminary report in March on spring 2023 enrollments, the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) Research Center observed that the 0.5% increase (22,000 more students than in spring 2022) at community colleges was mainly the result of dually enrolled high school students and freshmen. The increase comes after an -8.2% drop in spring 2022 and -10.1% in spring 2021. (The center notes that spring enrollments are traditionally far lower than in the fall, which is when most students enroll in college.)
The spring enrollment figures follow the trend of last fall, when freshmen enrollment at community colleges increased 0.9% and dual enrollment grew 11.5%. Community college enrollment among older students (ages 25 to 29) saw a -9.2% decline last fall, a trend that continued with spring 2023 enrollments (-3.8%).
Primarily associate-degree-granting baccalaureate institutions (PABs) continued to see a downward trend this spring, with a -2.3% drop, or 21,066 fewer students. PABs saw a -6.7% decline in spring 2022 and a -6% dip in spring 2021, according to the report.
Overall, community colleges fared better on enrollments this spring than public four-year institutions, which saw a -0.8% decline (56,796 fewer students). Public four-year colleges also saw declines in spring enrollments during the pandemic, though at lower rates (-1.2% last spring and -0.3% in spring 2021).
Private nonprofit four-year colleges saw a -1.0% drop this spring in enrollments, while private for-profit four-year colleges saw a 1.4% increase.
A closer look at age groups
Dual enrollment at community colleges this spring jumped 8% (48,573), from 603,465 to 652,038 students, the data show. Last spring, dual enrollment increased 0.3%, following a -3.5% decline in spring 2021.
Enrollment among traditional college-age students — those ages 18 to 24 — increased this spring by 1.1% (24,027 more students). This following an -8% drop in spring 2022 and -14.5% drop in spring 2021. Spring 2023 enrollment for community college freshmen grew 12.4% (25,170 students), compared to 6.8% last spring and a -10.9% decline in spring 2021.
For those older than 24, enrollment this spring decreased by -3.8% (50,757 fewer students). Despite the continued decline, it’s a far slower pace than the -11.7% dip in spring 2022 and -7% decline in spring 2021.
Even before the pandemic, community colleges were experiencing enrollment declines as many students held off their postsecondary plans to instead work in the red-hot economy, especially older adults. The same may be happening now as employers are willing to pay workers more as they scramble to find enough employees.
But colleges may start looking more closely at how to attract those older students, Doug Shapiro, executive director of the NSC Research Center, said in an online briefing Tuesday with reporters. Adult learners may be critical to counter expected drops in enrollment among younger students due to demographic shifts and other factors. For example, younger adults may opt for shorter-term and less expensive programs over concerns about college costs, college debt and inflation.
Shorter-term, vocational programs
The trend toward more certificates and career and technical education seems to have continued in the spring. Undergraduates are shifting the types of credentials they pursue, with enrollments in bachelor’s degree programs falling more steeply than associate degree programs (-1.4%, or 114,000 fewer students, versus -0.4%, or 15,000 students fewer students), the center says. Meanwhile, other sub-baccalaureate credentials showed enrollment growth (4.8%, or 104,000 students), while graduate-level enrollment dropped this spring following upticks early in the Covid pandemic.
Computer science enrollments were up above pre-pandemic levels, the center says, reversing three years of flat or declining numbers. Meanwhile, healthcare and education program enrollments continued to fall across two- and four-year institutions alike.
Liberal arts and sciences, general studies and humanities still comprise the most majors among community college students, but there was a -0.4% enrollment decline this spring, down to about 1,469,000 students. The second-largest major — health profession and related clinical sciences — saw a -2.5% decline this spring. Meanwhile, computer and information sciences and support services saw a 9.7% increase over the same term to about 228,000 students.
Other majors that saw larger percentage increases include:
- Transportation and materials moving (11.8%)
- Personal and culinary services (9.7%)
- Science technologies/technicians (9.2%)
- Mechanic and repair technologies/technicians (8.2%)
- Precision production (7.5%)