Community college students are disappearing

Undergraduate enrollments at U.S. colleges and universities continued to decline this fall—led by a 5.6 percent drop in the community college sector and a steeper drop for the much smaller for-profit sector. Adult students, in particular, are sitting out this semester.

Those are some of the topline findings from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center’s latest enrollment data released today. The figures are a first look at fall data and could continue to shift. But the preliminary figures cover 50 percent of institutions and 8.4 million students nationwide.

Across the board, undergraduate enrollment is estimated to have dropped 3.2 percent, which combined with declines last fall, would amount to a 6.5 percent decrease in just two years.

“If this current rate of decline—this 6.5 percent—were to hold up, it would be the largest two-year enrollment decline in at least the last 50 years in the U.S.,” Doug Shapiro, executive director of the Clearinghouse, said on a call Monday with reporters.

Community college students take the biggest hit

The big idea: Community colleges, which account for almost half of undergraduates nationwide, clearly have taken the biggest hit in the pandemic. Enrollment in the sector was declining prior to the pandemic, but it’s dropped precipitously in the past two years.

Full-time enrollment at two-year colleges has dropped the most significantly during the pandemic—and that dip is especially pronounced this fall. Part-time enrollment only declined 2.8 percent in the sector, compared to 9.8 percent for full-time.

As numbers were rolling in earlier this fall, Work Shift spoke with David Baime, senior vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges. Leaders in the sector were hoping enrollment might be flat, give or take a couple percentage points. But nobody, he said, was expecting big gains.

Baime said this fall seems to be 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,” he said. “But it doesn’t seem like there is going to be that kind of surge in job-related training.”

Going short

The numbers provide the first hard evidence that Americans aren’t just saying they’re interested in shorter non-degree options—but are starting to show up for them. Enrollment in undergraduate certificates inched up half a percentage point, while enrollment in undergraduate degree programs continued to decline. Associate degree programs were particularly hard hit, with a 6.6 percent drop.

Who isn’t showing up

Age: Adults age 25 to 29 were especially likely to sit this fall out. Undergraduate enrollment among that older, but prime learning-age group declined 8.3 percent, more than twice the overall decline. This was not the case last fall.

Gender: Enrollment among women dropped slightly more than men this fall, a sharp reversal of the trend seen over the past few years. Men continued to see steeper declines in most sectors—with the notable exception of community colleges. There, for the first time in the pandemic, women saw a bigger drop in enrollment.

Race and ethnicity: Black students continued to see the biggest decline in enrollment across sectors, for a combined 11.1 percent drop in two years. And this collapse follows years of sliding Black student enrollment.

Enrollment of white students has declined by 10.6 percent over the past two years. Latino student enrollment has dropped off at half that rate—but that reverses a trend of steadily increasing enrollment prior to the pandemic.

Looking forward

Declines in enrollment at the beginning of the pandemic were particularly pronounced among first-time, or freshman, students. But the losses in that group slowed this fall, with a decline of 3.1 percent compared to 9.5 percent last fall. The latest data from the National College Attainment Network’s FAFSA completion tracker, however, indicates that trend may not hold in the coming year.

FAFSA completions among high school seniors—a leading indicator of ultimate enrollment—are down 17.3 percent over this time last year.

Parting thought: It’s early in the aid application cycle, so the numbers should be interpreted with caution. But the early returns are alarming, said Bill DeBaun, director of data and evaluation for NCAN.

Support Work Shift

Give today and have your donation doubled through NewsMatch!