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Community college enrollment continues to decline

The National Student Clearinghouse released enrollment data for the Winter 2022 semester. Overall, undergraduate enrollment declined by 662,000 students compared to Winter 2021. Since the beginning of the pandemic, undergraduate enrollment has declined by nearly 10%. Community college enrollment dropped by 351,000. That represents 53% of the year-over-year enrollment decline.

Although the pandemic has exacerbated the enrollment losses, students nationwide have been bypassing community colleges for about a decade. There is a succinct explanation for this.


That’s the average income of a community college graduate 10 years after completing a degree. Not a starting salary – that’s 10 years after graduation.

$16.11 per hour.

There has been a lot of hand-wringing about the sharp decline in enrollment by male students. It’s not a mystery. Analysis of earnings data show that men who enter the workforce directly from high school have made more money 10 years after graduation than men who earned a community college degree, then entered the workforce.

In other words, a community college degree has become a financial liability.

That – not the pandemic or remote learning – is responsible for the decline in community college enrollment. It’s the cost of attendance, which goes beyond simply the cost of tuition. The cost of attendance must also include the lost income from sitting out for two years (or more) to complete a degree. It must also include the $1-$2 wage premium that a degree holder can expect to earn following graduation. And it must include the cost of student loans that a significant fraction of community college graduates cannot repay because they can’t earn enough income from their degree to get ahead of their debts.

Community college enrollment reflects ROI

Nothing can paper over the fact that a community college graduate will simply not out-earn a high school graduate. Holding tuition constant doesn’t really help, especially when the administration simply raises fees instead.

The $5 per-credit-hour “technology infrastructure” fee sounds both good and appropriate only to someone who is technologically illiterate. The reality is that in the past 20 years, the cost of:

  • computer equipment dropped by 85%
  • computer software dropped by 65%
  • Internet access per megabit dropped from $28 to $0.64
  • network equipment dropped an average of 17% per year

The cost of “technology infrastructure” has never been lower, and it will continue to decline. As it turns out, that’s exactly what “technology” does – it simultaneously makes things more efficient and less expensive. (Pretty much the opposite of “administration.”)

If the administration is currently spending more on “technology infrastructure” than it did in the past, it is simply rectifying a technology debt it incurred following years of deliberate underinvestment. (Vice Presidents don’t pay for themselves, you know.)

Shifting the cost of administrative growth and chronic underinvestment in technology, facilities, instruction, and student services to the students simply makes community college degrees even harder to justify. Higher cost diminishes the return-on-investment to the point that a community college degree is now economically indistinguishable from a high school diploma.

Falling enrollment is the price of the Board of Trustees’ failure to provide actual oversight of the community college administration. The Trustees have pledged their loyalty to the Administration instead of the community that elected them.

Until substantive changes occur at the Board level, the enrollment at our community college will continue to decline.

Photo Credit: Curtis Palmer , via Flickr