Community Colleges Nationwide Face Plunging Enrollment


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Marmonee Cooper

The coronavirus pandemic has gutted enrollment at community colleges nationwide. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, Pennsylvania’s overall college enrollment fell by 2.1 percent this fall compared to last fall when enrollment was already down 5 percent from 2019, just before COVID began sweeping across the United States and forcing colleges to move classes online.

This alarming trend poses a threat to the well-being of community colleges and the students they serve. Due to community colleges being underfunded even before the pandemic, the declining of college enrollment could alter American society for the worse. “It is a crisis, and I don’t think it’s widely recognized yet it is,” Jason Lane, dean of Miami University’s College of Education Health and Society, told the Washington Post.

“With fewer people going to college, society is going to be less healthy” Lane said. “It’s going to be less economically successful. It’s going to be harder to find jobs in the future, and there will be lower tax revenues because there won’t be as many people in high-paying jobs. It will be harder for innovation to occur.”

Community College Research Center Director Tom Brock spoke to MarketWatch, stating that “the decline in community college enrollment has a tremendous impact on the economy because community college provides so many workers for our nation’s economy. More than 50 percent of America’s 11 million community college students are in programs to prepare them for work. Around 3.7 million noncredit students attend community colleges to enhance their skills, but do not obtain degrees.”

Brock added, “The decline in student enrollment, particularly in community colleges, presents a significant risk to the sector, mainly because community colleges are funded by the bases of enrollment. With fewer students enrolling, colleges with fewer resources cannot provide the core programs, the academic instructions, and services that students are looking for. Colleges will become less attractive to students, have fewer resources, cut back on services and programs.”

People without an education past high school earn significantly less than classmates who go on to earn a bachelor’s degree. They’re more likely to live in poverty and less likely to be employed. They’re more prone to depression, live shorter lives, need more government assistance, pay less taxes, divorce more frequently and vote and volunteer less often.

The total undergraduate enrollment dropped 3.1 percent from the fall of 2020 to the fall of 2021, bringing the total decline since the fall of 2019 to 6.6 percent or 1,205,600 students. However, graduate enrollment continues to be relatively strong, growing 2.1 percent this fall, maintaining the upward trend of a 2.7 percent increase reported last fall.

Research shows that community college enrollment declines also differ by race and gender. Enrollment declines are larger for men than women, and are particularly large for Black men, Native American men, and international students.

From fall 2019 to fall 2021, Black male community college enrollment declined by 24 percent, and Native American male enrollment at community colleges declined by 26 percent. These declines are extremely alarming when considering the longstanding racial and gender inequities central to higher education.

The enrollment crisis at U.S. colleges continued a second year into the pandemic, even as coronavirus vaccines became widely available, according to the latest numbers from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The total undergraduate enrollment dropped 3.1 percent from the fall of 2020 to the fall of 2021, bringing the total decline since the fall of 2019 to 6.6 percent or 1.2 million students.

In an op-ed in The Washington Post, Brock wrote that a “relatively modest federal investment can go a long way toward enabling students to complete their studies and enter the workforce. States and community colleges are ready and able to meet this challenge — and at lower cost than the $45 billion Congress proposed for free community college.”

One proposal is the Guided Pathways model in which community colleges redesign their programs to create clearer pathways to marketable workplace credentials.

“These reforms might lack the appeal of free community college, but they also might ultimately pay off more for students and society,” Brock wrote. “We have the evidence, and states and colleges are poised to make the changes needed. Now is the time for Congress to make the investment.”