Community College Students Aren’t Returning. Here’s Why.

Half of stopped-out community college students said in a New America survey that they were “a little or not likely” to enroll in a community college again.
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  • Community college enrollment fell sharply during the pandemic and hasn't fully recovered.
  • Many students who left community college during the pandemic aren't planning to return, according to a recent New America survey.
  • Of the students who plan to enroll, many are putting their plans off past 2023.
  • Students are now more concerned about the economy than COVID-19, according to the survey.

Community college enrollment plummeted during the pandemic — and a recent New America survey found that many students who left school during the pandemic don't have plans to enroll again anytime soon.

Just 42% of stopped-out students surveyed by New America said they were "very/somewhat likely" to enroll in a community or technical college in the future. That number was much higher for aspirants, however, with 65% indicating they are likely to enroll in the future, according to a survey of 1,641 adults conducted between Nov. 16 and Dec. 15 of last year.

That survey included: 500 people who were enrolled between January of 2021 and 2022 and continued enrollment into the fall of 2022, 500 who were enrolled between spring 2021 and 2022 but stopped out, 141 new students who enrolled for the first time in the fall of last year, and 500 who considered enrolling in spring 2022 but didn't enroll in the fall, or "aspirants."

A large number of stopped-out students who said they plan to enroll in college again didn't have plans to enroll soon. Roughly 17% said they would enroll in spring 2023; 15% said summer 2023; 29% said they planned to enroll this fall, and 24% indicated that they planned to enroll later than 2023.

Aspirants followed along similar lines: 18% told New America they planned to enroll in the spring of 2023, 17% in the summer, 29% in the fall, and 23% said they planned to enroll later than 2023.

Rachel Fishman, the acting director of New America's Education Policy program, said a survey earlier in the pandemic showed that many stopped-out students planned to reenroll, a trend that has since shifted, according to the new survey data.

"A lot of them don't seem to be wanting to come back," Fishman told BestColleges. "And even the ones that do say they are going to come back, they're putting off their plans to come back."

Delayed enrollment can make students less likely to follow through and go back to school, Fishman said.

"We've seen 1 in 5 students disappear from community colleges since the pandemic began," Fishman said. "While that rate of loss seems to have stagnated, I don't think we're going to see a reversal anytime soon, barring economic calamity of some sort that causes layoffs or some sort of recession."

Olivia Cheche, a higher education program associate with New America, said students' attitudes toward online education have also shifted since the onset of the pandemic. Students who remained enrolled gave upwards of 70% approval to online education, while just about half of stopped-out students said they were satisfied with the quality of online education.

"Continuing students are actually starting to perceive that online education is of higher quality than in-person instruction," Cheche told BestColleges. "That stood out to me because that's one of the things I never would have guessed."

Economic Concerns on the Rise

Students are now more worried about the economy than COVID-19, according to the New America survey. But those economic concerns aren't driving any boosts to community college enrollment.

Roughly 18% of stopped-out students and 29% of aspirants cited "the overall uncertainty because of the economy" as a major reason for not enrolling. A plurality of both groups cited having to work and being unable to afford a program as reasons for not enrolling.

While poor economic conditions are typically associated with increased enrollment in higher education, Fishman said the current economy is unique.

"During the Great Recession and other recessions previously, the associated layoffs meant that people had to return to school to get more skills and abilities and credentials so that it would help them when they were looking for a job," Fishman said.

The current job market remains hot, Fishman said, with many employers still looking to fill open positions. And although the job market is favorable to people seeking employment, Fishman noted that high inflation has driven up the cost of living — and higher education would be a further expense to people with already strained budgets.

New America plans to release additional blogs regarding the survey results, Cheche and Fishman said, including an article honing in on students' perceptions of online learning.