COVID-19 Slashes Community College Enrollment

COVID-19 Slashes Community College Enrollment
portrait of Anne Dennon
By Anne Dennon

Published on April 15, 2021

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President Joe Biden's closest education experts — Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona and first lady Dr. Jill Biden, a community college professor — have both called community colleges the nation's "best-kept secret." The new administration aims to make two-year college free for all, even as enrollment at community colleges plummets amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

An affordable pathway to higher education and stable careers, community colleges serve mostly underprivileged students, who are more likely to be older, have kids, and work while attending school. Nearly half are low-income, and over half identify as a race other than white.

Community college students are canceling their education plans at more than double the rate of their peers at four-year colleges.

Due to the pandemic, community college students are canceling their education plans at more than double the rate of their peers at four-year colleges and universities.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, community college enrollment fell 10% between fall 2019 and fall 2020. The pandemic's negative impact on community college enrollment hit vulnerable students the hardest, with enrollment among Black and Latino/a students declining 19% and 16%, respectively, last fall.

Low-Income Students Cancel Community College Plans

Students deciding whether to go to college and stay enrolled often make the decision based on financial reasons. Now, students from low-income households are exiting higher education at an elevated rate.

Almost half of low-income community college students surveyed by the U.S. Census Bureau have canceled their college plans. Additionally, 2 in 5 community college students surveyed say they canceled their college plans because they lost a job since the pandemic started.

Almost half of low-income community college students surveyed have canceled their college plans.

Data indicates that low-income, Black, and brown communities have experienced higher rates of unemployment and income loss due to COVID-19.

These communities also face disproportionate risk during the public health crisis, exhibiting higher rates of the comorbidities that have led to most COVID-19-related deaths. Over one-third of community college students surveyed by the U.S. Census Bureau say their decision to cancel their community college plans was influenced by the virus in terms of contracting it, concern about contracting it, and/or caring for someone who had it.

Many community college students have experienced school interruptions before. Setbacks, both small and large, add up to missed education goals and a lower likelihood of graduating. The national six-year completion rate for community college recently plateaued at 60%.

More Than $12 Billion to Go to Community Colleges

Despite the drop in community college enrollment, the Biden administration hopes to invest in career and technical training. The latest $1.9 trillion stimulus package includes an estimated $12.7 billion for community colleges.

Congress is considering new workforce training proposals, including allowing Pell Grants to be used for vocational training. In the coming weeks, Biden is expected to propose making two-year schools free as part of the new multitrillion-dollar American Jobs Plan.

According to a recent national poll, nearly half of parents don’t want their kids to go straight to a four-year college.

Surveys of high school students and their families show that large swaths are looking for options other than traditional college. According to a recent national poll, nearly half of parents don't want their kids to go straight to a four-year college.

Community college enrollment swelled after the 2008 recession, though it took some time for enrollment to climb after the initial economic crash. It remains to be seen whether that pattern will repeat following this latest economic downturn.


Feature Image: FatCamera / E+ / Getty Images

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