Community college enrollment is looking flat this fall

Community college enrollments are looking more or less flat as numbers start to roll in from systems across the country. In Colorado, the numbers beat projections, but are down slightly from fall 2020—which itself saw a major drop as the pandemic took hold. Mississippi colleges are also down again, while enrollment in some states, like Michigan, that invested in major new tuition-free programs are holding steady or going up.

That’s in line with what the American Association of Community Colleges is hearing from the college presidents and system leaders. “In general, it seems enrollments are definitely in better shape than they’ve been since the first summer of the pandemic or the fall after the pandemic,” said David Baime, senior vice president for government relations at AACC. “But they are off more in some places and up in others.”

The big idea: Numbers from the National Student Clearinghouse won’t come out until later this fall, but these early indicators point to flat—give or take a point or two—enrollment for community colleges nationwide. That’s troubling for state leaders because community college enrollment can be an important indicator of the overall economic health of the communities they serve. In Colorado, for example, the community college system educates the most students of any state system and typically educates older students seeking retraining in high demand jobs.

Nationwide, community colleges were seeing enrollment declines even before the pandemic sent enrollments down 9.5 percent in fall 2020. Nobody was expecting numbers this fall to rebound to what they were two years ago, Baime said. Even small gains would be welcome.

Still, this fall seems to be providing final confirmation that the pandemic recession won’t be boosting community college enrollments like economic downturns typically do.

“We’ve always been the countercyclical education institutions, and if you were focused on enrollments, you might have hoped that as things returned a bit to normal that dynamic would have snapped back in,” Baime said. “But it doesn’t seem like there is going to be that kind of surge in job-related training.”

By the numbers

Here’s what we’re seeing in various cities and states.

In Colorado: Jason Gonzales reports that the Colorado Community College System saw enrollment decline half a percent this year compared with last year. And unlike last year, no school across the state experienced more than a single-digit percentage drop in enrollment.

At Lamar Community College, he writes, President Linda Lujan was expecting another big decline in enrollment. Luckily, the college’s enrollment dipped only 3.4 percent this fall.

Federal money has helped offset some of the enrollment losses, but Lujan said she worries most about what fewer students means to the long-term health of the community, especially because the college not only trains students for the local economy, but is also a major employer.

“There’s probably not a week that goes by that I don’t worry about the sustainability of the college,” she said.

In Mississippi: Molly Minta reports that enrollment at community colleges in the state is down about 5 percent from last fall, according to preliminary numbers from the Mississippi Community College Board. All but three of the state’s 15 two-year colleges saw declines.

A classroom at Mississippi Delta Community College in Moorhead. (Mississippi Delta Community College)

That has economic implications for Mississippi, she writes, with the community colleges housing career and technical training as well as workforce development.

“That’s one of our focuses as a community college is getting students into the workforce,” said Chassie Kelly, the director of enrollment services at Northeast Mississippi Community College. “If the students don’t enroll, we don’t get them there.”

In El Paso, Texas: Jewél Jackson reports that overall enrollment is down 6 percent from last fall at El Paso Community College, despite earlier expectations that it would be up. First-time college students, however, did end up showing up in a big way. The college has seen a 21 percent increase among that group—a significant shift from earlier in the pandemic when enrollment among first-time students saw steep declines.

The college sees that, along with increased retention rates, as a positive indicator for the future. 

“We’re very optimistic in our view of the opportunities and what we’re providing for students,” said Carlos Amaya, interim vice president of student and enrollment services. “We want the students to come back because we know it’s important for them, for our community, (and) for the economy.”

Elsewhere:

  • MiBiz reports that many community colleges in Michigan aren’t seeing enrollment declines, in part because of statewide programs like Futures for Frontliners and Michigan Reconnect, which provide tuition-free education at community colleges for eligible students.

  • The New York Post reports that enrollment in the City University of New York, which encompasses 25 two-year and four-year institutions, is down substantially this fall. The Post cites unpublished enrollment data, and it’s not clear whether the decline is concentrated in the two-year or four-year sector. But Borough of Manhattan Community College, for example, had recently told Work Shift that enrollment was down 15 percent this fall.

  • And a smattering of news reports on individual colleges show a mix: WGLT in Illinois reports that enrollment at Heartland Community College has rebounded to pre-pandemic levels; The Carteret County News-Times reports that Carteret Community College in North Carolina also has seen a major enrollment increase; while The Columbia Basin Herald reports that enrollment at Big Bend Community College in Washington dropped again this fall. 

Stepping Back

A surprisingly strong showing in a state like California, which accounts for 1 in 4 community college students nationwide, could of course change the nationwide enrollment math. But what’s happening in all 50 states and in specific communities across the country matters more for regional economic health.

For now, Baime said, colleges need to remain focused on strengthening both the diversity and the workforce relevance of their programs. They also need to increase efforts to re-engage students who would have gone to college after high school but didn’t because of the pandemic.

“The challenge for the colleges, in part, is to focus on and act energetically toward identifying and reaching out to students who didn’t enroll at all because of the pandemic and somehow get them back,” Baime said. “That means reaching out into their communities and getting in touch with those students and doing whatever they can to get them to reconnect.”

Elyse Ashburn reported for Work Shift from Washington, D.C. Jason Gonzales reported from Denver for Chalkbeat Colorado, Molly Minta reported from Jackson, Miss., for Mississippi Today, and Jewél Jackson reported from El Paso, Tex., for El Paso Matters. All three state-based journalists are Open Campus reporters working in partner newsrooms.

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