Community College Enrollments Drop This Fall

Community colleges are seeing a bleak enrollment picture and undergraduate enrollments are down largely across the board, but not by as much as some had feared.

September 24, 2020
 
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Undergraduate enrollments are down 2.5 percent compared to last fall, with the biggest losses being at community colleges, where enrollments declined by 7.5 percent, according to preliminary data on fall enrollments from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Although the enrollment declines were steepest at community colleges, undergraduate enrollment fell at all types of colleges, including private nonprofit four-year colleges (-3.8 percent) and private for-profit four-year colleges (-1.9 percent). The decline was more modest at public four-year colleges (-0.4 percent), although there were differences across public four-year institutions according to location, with rural institutions seeing the biggest decline (-4 percent) and urban institutions seeing slight gains (+0.5 percent).

The first glimpse of fall enrollment data during the COVID-19 pandemic and economic recession shows that undergraduate enrollment fell for students of all ethnicities. There were sizable declines in international enrollments at both the undergraduate (-11.2 percent) and graduate (-5 percent) levels (though it is worth noting that the clearinghouse's data are not as complete for international students as they are for other student groups).

Total graduate enrollment increased by 3.9 percent.

The data reflect enrollment trends as of Sept. 10, with about 22 percent of participating colleges -- 629 individual institutions -- reporting their numbers.

Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, said that while the overall undergraduate enrollment decline was lower than many had projected during the pandemic, the results are extremely concerning for community colleges and the many low-income students they serve.

"I would say that the overall decline of 2.5 percent for undergraduates is not as bad as many feared, and if it stays that low as more data come in for the fall, I think there would be a big sigh of relief," Shapiro said. "But I think even within that overall average, there are a lot of students and institutions that are already in great need, so I would say it would be very bad indeed if the enrollments stay this low later in the term for community colleges, where we have 7.5 percent decline from last year at this point. And it's not much better for the four-year private nonprofits. Those are both institutional categories that were already operating on very thin margins even before the pandemic, so it’s not good for the institutions, but even more seriously, it’s very concerning for the students."

Shapiro said he was surprised that community colleges aren't seeing any areas of growth at all.

"I think many people thought by now, six months into the recession, we should start seeing enrollment growth by unemployed students looking to upskill. Those students in a typical recession should be flowing into community colleges en masse; we’re not seeing any of that. The enrollment decline in community colleges is among all age groups. Many people thought students would transfer to community colleges to be closer to home; we’re not seeing any evidence of that in today’s data."

Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of government relations for the American Council on Education, echoed the concerns about community college enrollments, which normally would be expected to grow during a recession.

"Higher education enrollment is countercyclical; when the economy struggles, people go to college to boost their economic prospects. In the fall of 2009, the year after the Great Recession began, enrollment in higher education went up by one million students and enrollment increases at that time were particularly pronounced at the community college level. That's clearly different than what we are seeing this time.”

Across institutional types, undergraduate enrollment fell across almost all age categories, with the single exception being increases in the number of high school-aged students enrolled in dual-enrollment programs.

At community colleges the number of traditional-aged learners declined more sharply than did the number of adult learners: the number of 18- to 20-year-olds and 21- to 24-year-olds declined by 9.5 and 8.7 percent, respectively, while the number of 25- to 29-year-old students and those age 30 or over declined by 6.3 and 7.3 percent, respectively.

For the most part, undergraduate enrollments declined for both full-time and part-time students. At private nonprofit colleges, the number of full-time students declined by 3.7 percent, and the number of part-time students declined by 5 percent. At community colleges, full-time student numbers fell by 7 percent and part-time student numbers by 7.8 percent.

Consistent with the fact that the biggest enrollment losses were seen at community colleges, the biggest enrollment drops by program type were also seen at the undergraduate certificate (-9.7 percent) and associate degree (-7.5 percent) levels. Enrollments in bachelor’s degree programs decreased by 0.5 percent, while enrollments increased for postbaccalaureate certificate programs (up by a substantial 24.2 percent), master’s (+6 percent) and doctoral programs (+2.1 percent), as well as graduate certificate programs (+3.1 percent). Enrollments in first professional degree programs, such as law and medicine, declined by 1.9 percent.

Graduate enrollments grew for domestic students across all racial and ethnic groups, with the biggest gains seen in enrollments of Hispanic (+14.2 percent), American Indian/Native American (+10.2 percent) and Asian (+9.3 percent) students. The number of Black students enrolled in graduate programs increased by 8.4 percent.

Graduate enrollments increased by 9.1 percent at private for-profit colleges, 4.7 percent at public four-year colleges and 0.6 percent at private nonprofit four-year institutions.

Shapiro said the clearinghouse will continue to collect data on enrollments monthly throughout the fall.

"In fact, the second release will be in just three weeks, on Oct. 15, when we expect to have closer to 50 or maybe even 60 percent of the data in place, so we’ll have a better picture then," he said.

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