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Students walk between classes at Moorpark College in California.

Spencer Weiner/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Spring undergraduate enrollment fell 5.9 percent compared to this time last year, the largest drop since the COVID-19 pandemic began, according to the latest data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Community colleges were particularly hard hit, with a double-digit enrollment decrease of 11.3 percent, down from 9.5 percent in fall 2020.

The data, collected as of March 25, include 12.6 million students and incorporate 76 percent of higher education institutions.

“These drastic shifts in enrollment are the latest example of how the pandemic has derailed higher education plans for students across the country, and exposed and deepened inequities along racial and socioeconomic lines,” said Mamie Voight, interim president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy. The drop in community college enrollment in particular will “likely be felt for generations.”

Across the sector, higher education leaders hoped for better news this semester, said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the research center. He was surprised to see steeper declines this spring than in the fall.

“I think there were many people who thought students might only stop out for a term and once they see the situation improving, they might re-enroll or start up in the spring,” Shapiro said. “And that’s clearly not happening. Declines at the four-year and the two-year institutions are larger than they were last term.”

Some groups of students had steeper enrollment decreases than others. Enrollment of students between the ages of 18 and 20, who make up about 40 percent of undergraduates, fell 7.2 percent, a larger drop than any other age group. At community colleges, enrollment by these traditional college-age students plummeted a dramatic 14.6 percent.

Enrollment of older adults, meanwhile, continued to dip, Shapiro said, despite campus leaders’ hopes that older learners would return to college this term to get new job skills because of the economic downturn.

“We’re not seeing any signs of that,” he said.

Native American student enrollment continues to be the most affected, dropping 13 percent this spring, while enrollment of Asian students experienced the smallest decline, 4.8 percent. White, Black and Latinx student enrollment decreased by similar amounts -- 8.5 percent, 8.8 percent and 7.3 percent, respectively.

Notably, Latinx enrollment, which was increasing prior to the pandemic, fell a staggering 13.7 percent at community colleges this spring.

“College attendance and completion inequities are really pervasive among low-income and students of color,” said Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations at the American Association of Community Colleges. “Community colleges serve a higher percentage of these students than other sectors of higher education. We’re seeing that play out in these enrollment declines.”

Keith Curry, president and CEO of Compton Community College, sees his institution reflected in the data. Enrollment at Compton fell by 20 percent this spring.

“If community colleges continue to see declines, what happens to us in the future?” Curry said. “We’re serving the most vulnerable populations, the ones most impacted by COVID-19, the ones most impacted by what’s happening with the economy. And we have a lot of people living in houses with essential workers.”

It concerns him that while undergraduate enrollment flounders, particularly at community colleges, graduate education enrollment is on the rise. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that enrollment in master's degree programs rose 5.2 percent and doctoral degree enrollments increased 3.6 percent. In comparison, associate degree enrollment fell 10.9 percent, and bachelor’s degree enrollment declined 2.2 percent.

While the report does not include racial and socioeconomic demographics for graduate student enrollment, students who can afford to pursue a graduate degree tend to be more affluent, Curry said. So the uptick in graduate student enrollment, paired with community colleges’ declining enrollment, risks widening the educational attainment gap between the “haves and have-nots.”

“Depending on what that data looks like, we’re going to have some individuals who are from [low-income] communities who don’t have access to higher education, but then you have other people from other communities who have access to graduate school and are thriving,” he said. “That’s what my fear is … depending on the demographics of graduate enrollment, the disparity will continue to increase.”

Shapiro agreed that the different trajectories of graduate and undergraduate enrollment this spring pose equity challenges.

“If you have a degree already, this is a great time to get a new one, particularly if you’ve lost a job,” he said. “But if you don’t already have a degree, chances are you’re not in a position to” return to college. “Undergraduate students are still suffering in the recession, whereas students who already have an undergraduate degree are in a better position.”

Curry also pointed out that the data tell a particularly bleak story for men of color at the undergraduate level. Enrollment for Black and Latinx men across institutions dropped 14.3 percent and 12.6 percent, respectively. At community colleges, those numbers are even more stark, with a 21.5 percent decline for Black men and a 19.4 percent decline for Latinx men.

These groups are already underrepresented in higher education, so it disturbs Curry to see them overrepresented in declines.

University leaders need to ask themselves, “How do we get men of color back into our programs?” he said. “Men of color are being left outside. The decline is here. Now what are we going to do about it?”

He wants to see colleges make “race-conscious decisions” in providing student supports, and he wants to see more funds allocated to colleges to recruit and retain students of color.

President Joe Biden’s American Families Plan, proposed Wednesday, could address some of those concerns.

The plan would make two years of community college free and subsidize tuition for two years for students with a household income of less than $125,000 at four-year minority-serving institutions. It also pledges $62 billion for a grant program “to invest in completion and retention activities at colleges and universities that serve high numbers of low-income students, particularly community colleges,” which can go toward services such as emergency basic needs funds, childcare and mental health care.

The American Families Plan is “removing barriers to completion, and access and completion is what drives enrollment,” Parham said. “So eliminating and eradicating those barriers to attendance and completion, I think, are going to be vital supports for regaining enrollment.”

Voight, of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, said the enrollment trends have significant policy implications in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“As we turn from crisis to recovery, we must both expand and target investments to support students from low-income backgrounds and students of color and the institutions that serve them; address affordability barriers to enrollment and re-enrollment for students, including by doubling the federal Pell Grant; and continue to strengthen the postsecondary value proposition for students through equity-driven higher education reform,” she said. “Decisions today will impact individuals, families, the workforce and our entire society tomorrow.”

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