While undergraduate college enrollments have been declining steadily since 2012, the trend this year has taken a further downward turn, particularly for community colleges. According to recent research by the National Student Clearinghouse, overall undergraduate enrollment declined 3.2 percent, while community colleges saw a 5.6 percent decrease.
Community colleges were hit even harder by the decrease in student transfers, with a combined loss of 15.2 percent from both reverse transfers from four-year colleges and lateral transfers from other two-year schools. Not only is this having a profound effect on institutions, but it could have overarching effects on society and the economy as fewer people pursue a formal college education.
Multilayered contributing factors
As much as we’d like to attribute the total decline in enrollments to the pandemic, it’s clear that COVID-19 is not the only factor. For instance, birth rates have been falling continuously for more than a decade (dropping 4 percent in 2020 alone) and as mentioned, college enrollments were trending down prior to the pandemic. However, COVID-19 has had a substantial and wide-reaching impact on the financial ability of families and individuals to pay for higher education of any form. Students have seen parents lose their jobs or may have lost their own jobs, and their educational plans may have been disrupted by deaths due to COVID or the need to help support their families by working or caring for children.
The financial burdens, in particular, have disproportionately affected low-income students and students of color, who make up a larger percentage of community college attendees. In fact, a recent industry webinar noted that prospective transfer students’ top concern is the cost of attending college and incurring debt.
While enrollments and reverse and lateral transfers decreased, upward transfers from two-year colleges to four-year institutions increased by 3 percent. Many of these transferring students are leaving community college before they attain a two-year degree, so community colleges are serving fewer students for less time overall.
Part of the increase in upward transfers may be due to the rise in online learning that was dramatically accelerated by the pandemic. An education from a residential college that would have required paying living expenses in addition to tuition may have been unaffordable pre-pandemic, but is now more financially manageable online. Now that students may not have to go anywhere, they can go anywhere.
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