Enrollment growth continues at community colleges


Community colleges gained 118,000 students in the fall of 2023 – a 2.6% increase – the highest growth of any sector in higher education.

That’s according to the final report on fall 2023 undergraduate enrollment from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) Research Center. The report follows up on preliminary enrollment data released in October.

Across all sectors, undergraduate enrollment grew 1.2%, the first increase since the pandemic. Public and private nonprofit four-year institutions both saw smaller increases of 0.6%. And more than two-thirds of states saw undergraduate enrollment growth in the fall.

Undergraduate enrollment has “finally turned the corner,” Douglas Shapiro, the center’s executive director, said in a Zoom call Tuesday with reporters. But, he added, “we’re still in a deep hole.” There are more than 1 million fewer students enrolled in postsecondary education than five years ago.

Most of the fall 2023 growth came from students continuing from last year or coming back to college after stopping out. Freshman undergraduate enrollment across all sectors grew only 0.8%. However, growth of freshman enrollment was largest at public two-year institutions at 2.6%.

The number of community college students enrolling full-time grew 4.6%, while there was a 1.6% increase in students enrolling part-time.

Dual enrollment continued to increase, up 5.2%, or 44,000 students, at community colleges and 7.4% at primarily associate-degree-granting baccalaureate institutions (PABs).

“Dual enrollment continues to a play a key role in increases,” Shapiro said.

As for older students (age 30+) at community colleges, enrollment grew 2.2%.

Program enrollment

Enrollment in associate-degree programs saw a 2.2% increase among undergraduates, adding about 96,000 students. However, associate enrollment is still well below fall 2019 levels (-14.2%). In comparison, bachelor’s-degree programs grew by 0.7%, or 63,000 students.

Certificate program enrollment also grew, gaining 18,000 students (1.8%). This is the third consecutive year of growth – though the rate of growth has slowed — and certificate enrollment is now 15.6% above 2019 levels.

Enrollment grew 16% at community colleges with a “high vocational program focus,” according to the report, 3.7% above fall 2019 levels. Meanwhile, community college enrollment at transfer-focused institutions stabilized but remains 19.6% below fall 2019 levels.

In terms of fields of study, health majors at community colleges grew by 2.4%, or 16,000 students, to more than 686,000 students. That comes after over four years of decline. But the fields with the biggest percentages of growth at community colleges were mechanic/repair technologies, which had an 11.3% increase in enrollment in fall 2023, and computer and information sciences, which drew 9.1% more enrollees than in 2022.

Meanwhile, enrollment in security/protective services programs declined (-2.2%), as did enrollment in agricultural programs (-1.8%) and education programs (-1.6%).

Demographic breakdowns

In terms of gender, enrollment of males at community colleges increased 2% from 2022 and enrollment of females rose by 2.6%.

Enrollment grew for Hispanic (5.5%) and Asian (6.3%) students at public two-year institutions in fall 2023, continuing a trend from 2022. Black student enrollment at these institutions also grew (2.1%) after a small decline in 2022.

It’s a different story for White student enrollment, which was down -2.1% at community colleges, as well as at public four-year institutions and private, nonprofit four-year institutions.

When looking more closely at freshman enrollment, freshman enrollment of Black students declined slightly (-0.9%) after growing 5.6% in 2022. White freshman enrollment also declined (-2.9%). Declines in Black and White freshman enrollment also occurred at public and private four-year institutions, though the numbers grew at private, for-profit four-year institutions.

Enrollment of Hispanic freshmen grew slightly (2.3%) and Asian freshman enrollment had the biggest gains at public two-year institutions with a 6.6% increase.

The report cautions to view these data carefully as more undergraduates – especially freshmen – are choosing not to report their race across all sectors.

Overall, undergraduate enrollment grew slightly more for traditional-age students from lower-income neighborhoods than for students from higher-income neighborhoods. At public two-year colleges, though, enrollment for students from higher-income neighborhoods grew slightly more than that of students from lower-income neighborhoods. The number of students from the top neighborhood income quintile grew by 2.8%, compared to 2.6% growth for students from the bottom neighborhood income quintile.

About the Author

Tabitha Whissemore
Tabitha Whissemore is a contributor to Community College Daily and managing editor of AACC's Community College Journal.
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