Community colleges lead the way in enrollment gains

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Overall undergraduate enrollment this fall has increased by 2.1% compared to last fall, with community colleges accounting for nearly 60% of the growth, according to preliminary data from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) Research Center. The data also show short-term credentials continue to attract more students than degree programs.

The 4.4% jump at community colleges this fall follows a small-but-promising increase this spring, which was mainly due to growth in dual enrollment, following several years of huge drops during the Covid pandemic. While fall 2023 enrollment in associate-degree programs has increased 3.6% (compared to 0.9% in bachelor’s degree programs), enrollment in undergraduate short-term credentials — most of which are at community colleges — has jumped 9.9%, the center says in a report highlighting the data findings.

“What we are seeing is a continuing trend that’s been going on for really two years now of students electing to pursue shorter-term programs, so associates are doing better than bachelor’s, certificates are doing better than associates,” Douglas Shapiro, the center’s executive director, said in a Zoom call Wednesday with reporters.

Both part- and full-time enrollment at two-year colleges saw growth this fall, 3.8% and 5.5%, respectively. The same holds for primarily associate-degree-granting baccalaureate institutions (PABs), which saw a 2.1% bump among full-time students after a 4.9% increase last fall, and a 1.8% increase among part-time students, following a -4.8% drop in fall 2022.

Despite the increase in overall undergraduate enrollment, there were declines among freshmen this fall — due mainly to fewer students ages 18 to 20 — with bachelor’s programs at public and private non-profit institutions shouldering the bulk of the decreases after seeing gains last fall, the report says. Freshmen enrollment appears to have stabilized at community colleges (-0.2%) and PABs (0.3%), following significant gains in fall 2022, 7.7% and 8.3%, respectively.

Postsecondary dual enrollment, which occurs mainly at community colleges, continued its red-hot growth, jumping another 8.8% this fall, following a 10.4% increase last year. Since fall 2021, dual enrollment is up 20%, and dually enrolled students account for about 40% of the total enrollment increase at community colleges over the last two years, Shapiro said.

Related article: Two-year enrollments appear to surge this fall

Among community colleges, campuses in all types of settings saw about equal growth: 4.5% among city colleges, 4.2% for colleges in suburban areas and 4.5% for two-year colleges in rural areas and towns. PABs also saw growth in all types of areas, but generally at lower rates than traditional community colleges. However, the sector saw significant growth in the suburbs (5.4%).

The NSC Research Center report is based on data submitted to the center by 55% of Title IV degree-granting institutions as of September 28. Slightly more than half of all community colleges have reported their data, which represent slightly more than half of all community college enrollments. The center expects to issue final enrollment figures in January.

Demographics

Black, Latinx and Asian students accounted for most of the undergraduate and graduate growth, the center says. Meanwhile, enrollment among White students continued to drop in both levels (-0.9% and and -1.9%, respectively), especially among freshmen (-9.4%).

The trend generally is reflected among community colleges. White student enrollment at two-year colleges this fall remained flat (0.1%), while enrollment among Latinx and Asian students grew 7% each, 3.7% among Black students and 6.3% among multiracial students.

A closer look at freshmen

The report also looks at freshmen enrollment changes by credential and enrollment intensity. Full-time enrollment among community college freshmen dipped -2.2%, following a 6.5% increase in fall 2022. Meanwhile, part-time enrollment continued to increase, growing 4.1% on top of the 5.5% increase last fall. Part-time enrollment in undergraduate certificate programs again shot up by 11.8% this fall, following a 14.4% increase last fall. Full-time enrollment in these programs also grew, but at a slower pace, 1.9% this fall compared to 8.4% in fall 2022.

Community college freshmen demographics largely mirrored overall demographics at two-year colleges. White student enrollments plummeted this fall by -6.9%, following a slight increase last fall (1.3%). Freshmen enrollment among Asian and multiracial students increased 2.4% and 1.2%, respectively. For Latinx and Black freshmen, enrollment dropped slightly, -0.8 and -0.7%, respectively.

Shapiro speculated that some White undergrads may not be self-reporting their race or ethnicity to their colleges. So they would be counted as missing race or ethnicity in this fall’s data. He also noted that the so-called “enrollment cliff” — a dramatic demographic drop in the college-age population — may already be starting among White students.

Programs of interest

Enrollment in healthcare programs is rebounding after declines during the pandemic, the center says, noting the increases in undergraduate certificates (5.7%) and associate degrees (4.4%). Computer and information sciences continued to see significant growth, especially for associate (10.4%) and master’s (13.7%) programs. Other associate programs that saw increases this fall (following decreases in fall 2022) are liberal arts and general studies (4.1%), health professions and related clinical studies (4.4%), and engineering technologies/technicians (3.0%).

But some associate programs experienced significant drops this fall, especially biological and biomedical science (-13.1%) and education (-4.1%).

The report shows that enrollments in the top 10 majors in all undergraduate certificate programs grew significantly, especially in trade-related majors like precision production (14.2%), construction trades (10.4%) and mechanic and repair technologies (10.3%).

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.