Understanding the College Enrollment Drop

Two national experts explore why community colleges have lost students, whether and when enrollments are likely to start climbing again, and how institutions should respond.

July 27, 2022
Joe Garcia, a white man with a goatee, and Nate Johnson, a bald white man with glasses.
Joe Garcia (left) and Nate Johnson

College and university enrollments—particularly at community colleges—continue to plummet. Have they bottomed out? Will they recover if the economy cools off as expected? Has enrollment dropped to a new lower plateau that’s likely to be the baseline going forward?

A recent episode of The Key, Inside Higher Ed’s news and analysis podcast, explored the 7.5 percent decline that college enrollments have suffered since the pandemic, with a focus on community colleges that enroll working learners and first-generation students, which have been especially hard hit.

The conversation featured Joe Garcia, chancellor of the Colorado Community College system, and Nate Johnson, a researcher and policy analyst whose firm, Postsecondary Analytics, advises states, foundations and businesses on education and workforce policy.

They surmise that some of the enrollment losses of the last two years may represent a new lower baseline going forward and discuss the implications for institutions and students.

An edited transcript of the podcast is below.

***

Inside Higher Ed: A lot of people in higher education expected, or at least hoped, that enrollments that were depressed by the pandemic would have begun to rebound by now. So the latest data from the National Student Clearinghouse, about spring 2022 enrollments, were something of a gut punch. Were the two of you surprised that enrollments haven’t recovered? And what do you consider to be the major factors suppressing them?

Nate Johnson: I didn’t really have a particular expectation, because my understanding of what we can expect for enrollments was broken a couple of years ago by the COVID pandemic. I’d been keeping track since about 2012 of the change in unemployment rates from May to May, which ended up being a pretty good predictor of fall enrollment rates at community colleges, with about a 2.5-percentage-point increase or decrease in enrollments at community colleges for every percentage-point change in the unemployment rate.

What we had with COVID was about a 13-point increase in May to May unemployment rates, which using that model would have predicted about a 40 percent increase in community college enrollments, which obviously wasn’t what happened. Instead you had a really steep decline. At that point, I didn’t really know what was going to happen next. That was going to depend on the economy, on what community colleges did, on the state of the pandemic.

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In the last couple of years since 2020, when the pandemic first hit, the declines in community college enrollment have actually been kind of what you would expect. In 2020, the unemployment rate was 13.2 percent. In May 2021, it declined to 5.8 percent, which ordinarily would be a change where you would expect a big decrease in community college enrollments, because of the decline in unemployment. This May, it’s down another 2.2 points, to 3.6 percent.

The declines we’re seeing now are consistent with that historical pattern. But given how unexpected and dramatic the change was in 2020, I can understand the optimism, and shared it to some extent myself, that there will be some rebound from the health consequences of the pandemic, if we didn’t know anything about what happened before May 2020.

If we’re just looking at the unemployment rate, it would look like it was at a historic high, and we’re in the midst of a huge recession and 13 percent unemployment rate. And then when that goes down, further drops in community college enrollment would be about what you would expect. It’s almost like there was a new level set. We may go back to increases in enrollment when that unemployment rate starts going back up. But I don’t know yet.

Inside Higher Ed: Joe, how does it look on the ground where you are in Colorado?

Joe Garcia: It’s challenging here on the ground, because it’s a confluence of events that we’ve never seen before. As both of you were talking about, in the past, when the economy took a downturn and fewer jobs were available and unemployment rates went up, college enrollment generally went up. But here, at the beginning of the pandemic, when unemployment rates were high, we thought we might see more students returning, but those students faced challenges. They had to deal with kids who couldn’t go to school, transportation systems they did not want to utilize. And so we saw a decline in employment but also a decline in enrollment. Those two rarely go together.

Then as the pandemic began to emerge, again we thought we would see enrollments start to climb. But there was such an increase in prevailing wages and demand for jobs, even for workers who didn’t have a lot of skills. So many of our students and potential students saw the opportunity to suddenly make $16 or $18 now or get a $500 bonus for coming back. And so they said, “Why would I go to college now—now’s the opportunity to make up for some of the lost wages over the last year and a half?” And then let’s not lose sight of the fact that for years prior to the pandemic we’d been losing enrollment. Not at the same rate, but we had a robust economy, we had already begun to see a decline in the number of white high school graduates nationally since 2012. We’re seeing increasing competition for those students, for students who we formally assumed were ours. But now the four years, the regional comprehensive [public universities], everybody was going after the students who used to be assumed to be community college material

Inside Higher Ed: We obviously don’t have a ton of answers yet, and the smart thing is to be humble about what we try to assert with confidence. We had a cataclysmic event that brought enrollment down, then at the point where we might have started seeing some rebound, we saw the economy recover, and didn’t see the countercyclical behavior we normally see. People on that education/work bubble chose to take jobs rather than going and getting more education and training at a community college.

So recognizing that there was a decline leading into the pandemic, then a big drop because of the pandemic, then a lack of recovery due to the improved job market, how likely is it in your view that we are at a new lower plateau? And what are the implications of that?

Especially given that before the pandemic, we were talking about how we needed more Americans to get some kind of postsecondary education and training. We were deeply concerned about equity, which was only reinforced by the events of a couple summers ago. Where do you think we are in the community college sector, particularly more broadly within the group of underrepresented students who have historically been most excluded from higher education?

Garcia: We’re not in a good place, candidly. We [recently] had all 13 of our presidents before our board presenting their budgets for next year and all of them were projecting flat or even continued slight declines in enrollment. We not only face the problem with students, we also face a problem with our own employees. A couple of our larger colleges said that their workforce, faculty, staff, administrators, had turned over 23 percent in a single year.

We’re not able to staff the way we should, and particularly in areas like financial aid and student support services, exactly the areas that need to be fully staffed to serve the populations that will close the equity gaps we’ve been so focused on in recent years. And now we’re beginning to see those gaps widen once again, that is not a good place for our colleges, and it’s not a good place for our country.

Johnson: One bright spot is student demand in fields like licensed health professions, technology, construction trades. There’s a lot of student demand in those areas. But those are the most costly fields for community college instruction. You have to hire people who have those skills. And the reason there’s a lot of student demand is because wages are high in those areas. So it’s kind of a self-reinforcing cycle. Unless you can pay a nurse what a hospital can pay a nurse, or pay an electrician what they can make wiring houses or installing solar panels, then you’re not going to have instructors who can teach students how to do those things. I think policy makers have to get their heads around the fact that competitive salaries for instructors in the fields they themselves want to prioritize is going to require some investment.

Garcia: That’s exactly right. We cannot find faculty, we cannot get a nursing director who needs to have a doctorate, we cannot get construction trainers, because they are going full speed, and we can’t begin to match the wages. And even if we can get the instructors, those career and technical education programs that are in such demand are our high-cost programs. We’ve always charged pretty much the same tuition as our general education programs. But we’ve cross-subsidized those career and tech ed programs through enrollments in our general ed programs, which are declining. So we’re getting less money, and we need to offer proportionately more courses that are the high-cost courses. That is a real challenge for our colleges.

Inside Higher Ed: Joe, where are you seeing the biggest impact and what are you most worried about in terms of enrollment?

Garcia: We’re very worried about the enrollment of traditional-age students. We’re seeing fewer enroll in the fall immediately following their graduation. What we saw this past two years was an even greater drop in the number of students who are returning for the beginning of their sophomore semester, because they’re saying, “I’ll stop out because I can get a good job now that pays $16 or $18 an hour.” Those students may come back, but it’s not going to happen overnight.

And when they come back, they’re going to be looking for training in allied health fields—which are expensive to offer and where we have the shortages—and in cybersecurity and construction and CTE fields, which are more expensive, require smaller class sizes, more expensive labs and equipment, and certainly are harder to find instructors.

Yet if you go talk to a legislator or someone in the governor’s office, they say, “Give us more people from the skilled trades,’” not understanding really that that costs us more to produce them. When we have a long waiting list for a nursing program, the policy makers say, “Why would you have a long waiting list—just admit more students.” We cannot staff up our faculty and we can’t place them in the hospitals where they need to get the clinical training. It’s not that we don’t want to produce more nurses, for example. We are at capacity.

Inside Higher Ed: Nate, what else should we be paying attention to?

Johnson: I think the choice framework has shifted in ways that may be lasting rather than temporary. Before the pandemic, and still to some extent, the main competitive advantage for community colleges is that they’re local. You can go there and can get in-person instruction, especially for general education classes.

Before the pandemic, [some] public four-year universities were very good at providing a lot of online classes, but the vast majority of them weren’t. Most majors you would be interested in weren’t available online. Post-pandemic, everything was available online, because it had to be. Now, those [four-year] institutions have a lot more capacity to offer online programs, so community colleges have lost a bit of that advantage.

Back in 2012, when [the Education Department’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System] first started keeping track of it, community colleges had more online students than four-year public institutions. By 2019, before the pandemic started, four-year colleges had quite a few more than two-year institutions did. They had outpaced them in offering online classes.

Garcia: Really good points, Nate. You’re right, we were in the lead when it came to online delivery 20 years ago. Our competition tended to come from the proprietary institutions that were really going full-bore online.

But now we see four-years who are looking at online as a profit center, to help offset losses elsewhere. And so every four-year institution that didn’t have an online program before is creating one. And the ones who are out in front, the University of Maryland Global Campus, or Arizona State or Western Governors, are taking students who previously came to us.

What they are offering that we can’t offer was a full four-year degree online. We offered courses, not full programs. People supplemented their traditional instruction with one or two online classes. That’s not what people want to do. They want all of their instruction online. And the ones who want it the most are the adult learners, the working adults, and frankly, they’re the ones who also have the greatest difficulty in being successful with pure online. So we have to figure out not just how to offer online, but to make sure that it works for students.

Inside Higher Ed: We talked about the pandemic, we talked about the job market, we talked about the intensified competition. What we haven’t talked about is the larger questioning of the value of going to college. Thinking about what it costs, the opportunity cost and outcome. That presumably factors at least somewhat into the discussion about the job market—do I go take this $18-an-hour job that Joe was talking about, versus spending the time to go further my education that might pay off down the road? Do you see that starting to play a role and if so, how much?

Garcia: Absolutely. In years past, it was common for us to say, “Everyone should go to college; it’s really important to get that postsecondary credential.” But in more recent years, we’ve heard people with very loud megaphones, and generally people with college degrees, saying, “College isn’t worth it, you shouldn’t do it, skills are more important than degrees,” all of those things that we have heard, and that it costs too much.

Now, a lot of times, students avoid coming to even our community colleges, where most low-income students go for free. But all we’ve heard is it’s too costly, don’t do it. Of course, it’s not just the costs for tuition and fees and books. You mentioned the opportunity cost of coming if you could instead be making $16 an hour, and that sounds like good money to you. We try to point out, both during the pandemic and after the last recession, the people who are most likely to remain employed were those with a postsecondary credential. It’s still important to protect yourself from those downturns, so come to college anyway. And you don’t have to get a four-year degree in English, you can get a two-year certificate, a nursing credential, a welding credential. Those things will help.

But often policy makers who are most supportive of community colleges and say, “Go to community college, it’s cheaper and get a skill,” are the individuals who neither attended community college and certainly aren’t sending their kids there. They’re sending their kids to the name-brand four-your residential universities. Because there is value in that. We do think there’s value in coming to the community college and getting that short-term certificate, you will have a better chance of getting a living-wage job.

But when you say college isn’t for everybody, some postsecondary education absolutely is if you want to compete for a job.

Inside Higher Ed: I wanted to return to the topic of equity that we discussed briefly. Pre-pandemic, we had been seeing some real gains in attainment for underrepresented groups. And it sure seems as if the pandemic and what’s ensued has set back some of those gains.

I’m curious how worried you are, especially if as Nate was hypothesizing overall enrollments have plateaued at a new lower level. Students of color and low-income students are disproportionately represented in the students who’ve been lost. Have those overall enrollment losses set back the equity and attainment goals the system was focused on?

Garcia: Frankly, I’m terrified. I spent a career working on trying to close those postsecondary attainment gaps that has plagued our country. It is important not just to underrepresented communities, but to our entire nation. When we look at the changing demographics, we have to get more Black and brown youngsters, particularly young men, through a postsecondary education, because white folks are aging out of the workforce, and you’re going to be replaced by Black and brown folks, but only if those folks have a credential.

And it is more likely that you need a postsecondary credential now than it was when you and I were entering the workforce 40 years ago. We started making some really hard-fought gains, but we have really seen our educational systems in our communities move backwards, and we cannot afford to let that happen.

The students we’re losing are the students who are most reliant on having a high school counselor, because they don’t have college-educated parents at home who can help them navigate the system. If during those last two years, when they were not coming to school, when they were doing things virtually, they were becoming more and more disengaged, more and more disconnected from the secondary schools, they were a lot less likely to make that transition to a postsecondary institution. And that’s a disaster for our economy.

Johnson: There is a little bit of good news in this story, though I share all the concerns Joe was talking about. Completion numbers are not down nearly as much as enrollment numbers are. Some of it can be a lag effect—if nobody’s coming in, nobody’s going to be going out. But over all, over the last 10 years or so, both completions and completion rates have increased. That’s good in the sense that a higher proportion of people who are starting are finishing, especially at community colleges, and especially among Black and Latino populations.

That’s part of the success of the kinds of efforts Joe and others have been leading, but if the number of people coming in continues to decline, it’s not going to be enough to keep up with that.

Then, if we do end up in an economic recession, or if the unemployment rate ticks up, the silver lining of that probably will be some return, which will include both first-time-in-college students and people who may have started something five years ago and then dropped out to take a $20-an-hour, low-skilled job that no longer exists.

Inside Higher Ed: It seems like your overarching sense is that while the pandemic may have shaken up that historical link [between unemployment rates and college-going rates], it doesn’t sound like you think the patterns have been completely upended. It sounds like you think there’s a reasonable chance that the historical countercyclicality will be sustained, even if maybe moderated somewhat by the value question and some of the other things that we’ve been talking about,

Johnson: I’m less sure about whether community colleges will ever get back that 10 to 15 percent pandemic-related decline. There may be kind of a new, lower base. But barring another pandemic, or war or other noneconomic event, I would be surprised if unemployment rates go up in the next year and community college enrollments don’t follow up to some extent.

Inside Higher Ed: You’ve expressed a lot to be concerned about in this conversation so far. I want to focus at the end on what institutions can, should, must be doing going forward, assuming there’s no magical turnaround.

Joe, you just talked about bringing your presidents together. What is your sense about the job that the institutions have in front of them, and how able they are to do it, given some of the workforce and other things you talked about?

Garcia: There’s a lot that we can do, and that we have to do. One is focusing more on adult learners. Community colleges have always served adult learners. But frankly, we had seen the average age for our students going down in recent years as we looked at more traditional students. But we’re all competing for traditional students, and that’s a shrinking population.

There are a lot of adults out there who would love to have a better job, an actual career, and they can’t do it without coming back and getting an education. But that means we’ve got to change how we deliver instruction, we’ve got to do more online, we’ve got to offer more classes in the evenings and the weekends.

And not just classes, but student support services. We’ve always offered classes and student support and financial aid at times that worked for us. We’ve got to focus more on what’s going to work for our students.

That’s costly. It takes a lot of effort. But that is the only way we’re going to be able to sustain enrollment levels that will allow us to keep the doors open. More importantly, it’s the only way we’re going to help strengthen local economies.

The other is greater completion rates. In the old days, when I first started community college, we were just trying to enroll as many students as we could. We knew we were going to lose a lot of them before graduation, before the end of their first semester.

In recent years, I’ve been pleased that we’ve been more focused on what it takes not just to enroll students, but to retain and graduate them. And what we’re now focused on is not just that, but whether we’re graduating them with a credential that will allow them to get a living-wage job. We’ve got to have that broader focus, if we want students to keep showing up and paying for our services.

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Doug Lederman

Doug Lederman is editor and co-founder of Inside Higher Ed. He helps lead the news organization's editorial operations, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Doug speaks widely about higher education, including on C-Span and National Public Radio and at meetings and on campuses around the country, and his work has appeared in The New York Times and USA Today, among other publications. Doug was managing editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education from 1999 to 2003. Before that, Doug had worked at The Chronicle since 1986 in a variety of roles, first as an athletics reporter and editor. He has won three National Awards for Education Reporting from the Education Writers Association, including one in 2009 for a series of Inside Higher Ed articles he co-wrote on college rankings. He began his career as a news clerk at The New York Times. He grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and graduated in 1984 from Princeton University. Doug lives with his wife, Kate Scharff, in Bethesda, Md.

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