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.
Finally, today’s students and their families continue to re-evaluate the value of a blanket approach to higher education as it pertains to future success. The shortages in the labor market and wage increases are highlighting that not all well-paying jobs, particularly in the trades, require a college education. In fact, trade schools have proven beneficial for preparing many students for successful, long-term careers.
College age students are also bombarded by images of peers who are making money on social media platforms, as professional gamers or in other internet-enabled endeavors. Why go to college if you can make money on TikTok?
Uncertainty around free community college
While the idea of making community college free nationwide has been discussed for years, the possibility is still uncertain. However, the consideration of whether community college would become free to students may have kept some from enrolling immediately, as they reasoned it would be better to wait and see.
The same reasoning is in play as many states have individually adopted various forms of free community college programs. Nearly 20 states currently offer free or reduced community college tuition to eligible students, and depending on what happens at the federal level, more could consider it or offer other forms of funding.
Financially strapped students may also be waiting to hear about increases in Pell Grants, which help low-income students cover educational-related costs in addition to tuition, such as room and board, fees, and books. At a time when families are unwilling to take on student debt, it may be worth waiting to see how much financial assistance they can receive.
How should colleges respond?
Community colleges have an important role in preparing people for the workplace by providing training for in-demand skills. Being keenly attuned to the local job market will give community colleges a fighting chance when it comes to meeting the current needs of students and employers.
At the same time, community colleges need to do a better job of anticipating future programs for the jobs that don’t currently exist but will soon. There are also many roles that are changing quickly and require new skillsets for success – particularly in technology focused positions. Community colleges should be able to pivot quickly to respond to changing market forces.
Another way to increase enrollment is to focus on retention – at all levels of the application and enrollment lifecycle. This is an area that is often overlooked among community colleges as retention is more commonly associated with four-year institutions. However, it is just as important for two-year schools. Some institutions are focusing on recruiting high school students who have indicated a desire to go to college. Others are working with those students who began the application process but stopped. And many actively contact students who were previously enrolled and stopped attending. Some community colleges even offer institutional aid, such as financial incentives for “stop-outs” to return, or will waive the tuition for a course if the student maintains a certain GPA.
At all times, community colleges must communicate their value with hard data on employment prospects and income potential. And they need to engage in ongoing self-examination to ensure their programs reflect students’ needs along with the changing demands of the employment landscape. A proactive approach is needed to ensure enrollments rebound through the ups and downs of the pandemic and the economy.
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