Community College Enrollment Crash Continues, Career-Focused Programs Rebound

Enrollment at community colleges has declined by more than 20% since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
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  • The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center detailed the declines in a new report.
  • Community colleges accounted for more than half of the overall decline in higher ed enrollment.
  • Some two-year skilled trades programs, however, saw double-digit enrollment increases from the year prior.

The community college enrollment crash caused by the COVID-19 pandemic continued into the spring 2022 semester, according to the latest report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

The number of full-time students at community colleges dropped by 11%, or 168,000 students, compared to spring 2021. It marks the second straight year of double-digit declines in full-time student enrollment. It brings the total full-time student enrollment decline at community colleges to 20.9%, or 372,000 students, since spring 2020.

The enrollment of part-time students at community colleges also declined in both spring 2021 and spring 2022 for all sectors. This brings the total student enrollment loss at community colleges nationwide to more than 827,000 since spring 2020.

Enrollment has been declining at higher education institutions across the country since the onset of the pandemic.

Undergraduate enrollment decreased by roughly 1.4 million students since the pandemic began, according to the report. However, community colleges have been hit particularly hard, accounting for more than half of the enrollment losses.

Martha Parham, the senior vice president of public relations at the American Association of Community Colleges, told BestColleges in an email that enrollment has been slowly declining since the Great Recession, which started in late 2007, and that the pandemic accelerated that decline.

At the same time, Parham noted that some community college presidents have indicated that increased wages and benefits brought on by the ongoing economic recovery may also be impacting enrollment.

Community colleges are adopting a wide range of strategies to respond to enrollment drops, she said, such as improving outreach efforts to students who have dropped out and increasing advertising and marketing.

"While I was not surprised by the report's findings, I think that enrollments continue to be an area of concern for many reasons," Parham said. "Certainly, it will impact funding models and allocations for the colleges."

Career and Technical Education Programs a Bright Spot

Programs focused on career and technical education (CTE) were a bright spot in the data, registering increases in two-year colleges' skilled trades.

Construction led the field with a 19.3% enrollment increase. Mechanic and repair programs saw an 11.5% increase. Precision and production programs saw a 16.7% increase, and culinary programs saw a 12.7% increase.

The report notes that, aside from construction programs, those specialized programs have still not returned to their pre-pandemic enrollment levels.

Jori Houck, a media relations and advocacy associate at the Association for Career and Technical Education, told BestColleges that the increase in CTE is due to two main factors: Enrollment in the hands-on programs had been largely scaled back due to pandemic safety measures, and the high demand for those jobs.

"There's a tremendous skills gap in a lot of these industries that saw increased enrollment in the report," Houck said. "And the labor market is still so volatile, and people are looking to upskill, reskill, or even move into a different career altogether."

Parham estimated that CTE programs make up roughly 40% of total community college offerings.

"These programs are designed to provide the skills needed to enter the workforce and earn a family-sustaining wage," Parham said. "Many of these programs were greatly impacted by the pandemic as they require more hands-on learning that was challenging during the pandemic due to social distancing, etc."

Houck said that the skills gap existed before the pandemic but was exacerbated over the last two years. Houck said that, in addition to ensuring the programs are funded at the federal level, another challenge is communicating the need for these jobs.

"With the pandemic, there's been a lot of conversations about what is really valuable in terms of postsecondary education," Houck said. "Is it the same four-year degree, as has always been the status quo, or is it one of the shorter-term programs with real hands-on types of education? I think that's kind of a national conversation going on right now."

Fall Enrollment Forecast Remains Unclear

Parham said the American Association of Community Colleges, as it analyzes the data, is concerned that historically excluded and first-generation students are disproportionately represented in the enrollment declines.

That reality, she said, "will only serve to widen the achievement gap, which so many community colleges are working diligently to close."

For instance, community college enrollment for Black first-year students was down 5.8%, according to the report. Community colleges also saw a disproportionate drop in the number of women enrolled, with a 9.2% drop compared to a 5.6% drop in men enrolled.

Enrollment of adults over the age of 24 dropped by 5.8% across all institutions, and community colleges accounted for roughly half of that nationwide decrease.

Overall, the number of first-year students at community colleges increased by 3.1% this spring, though that group experienced a 10.7% drop in spring 2021.

"This spring's growth was not enough to return community college freshman enrollment to pre-pandemic levels, with the current freshmen numbers still running 7.9 percent (17,000 students) below spring 2020's levels," the report reads.

Of the 340,000 new first-year students across all institutions in spring 2022, more than half started at a community college. The report notes that enrollment for first-year students who begin college in the spring tends to be significantly less than the enrollment for first-year students who start in the fall.

Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, cautioned in a press release that the increased spring first-year student enrollment doesn't necessarily guarantee a wider recovery in the fall.

"Although there may be some signs of a nascent recovery, particularly in a slight increase of first-year students, the numbers are small, and it remains to be seen whether they will translate into a larger freshman recovery in the coming fall," Shapiro said.

Parham, likewise, said there isn't a clear picture of what enrollment will look like in the fall.

"I don't think we know how it will play out for the fall," Parham said. "Some of our colleges are seeing increasing enrollments, while others are experiencing declines."