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Community college enrollment declines continue

To the surprise of few (except maybe community college administrators), Winter/Spring enrollment dropped by nearly 5% year-over-year. Community college enrollment declines have attracted a lot of attention since the start of the pandemic. Long-term data show, however, that the enrollment slide began well before March 2020.

A number of factors are working together to ensure that community colleges will have a hard time finding students in the coming years. A phenomenon called the “enrollment cliff” is scheduled to impact colleges and universities starting in 2025. In theory, community colleges will be less impacted by this because they enroll so many non-traditional students. Unfortunately, colleges and universities with traditional enrollment demographics are already looking for students to fill the void.

Four year schools already have strategies in place to deal with the potential drop in enrollment. These strategies include:

  • Using the common app to take in more applicants
  • Eliminating standardized test requirements for admission
  • Promising full tuition scholarships to low- and middle-income students
  • Actively recruiting disadvantaged students

In other words, four-year schools are already cutting into the community college demographic, three years ahead of schedule.

So, why are they doing this now?

Community college enrollment declines rest on value of degree

Simply, it takes time to refine and in some cases retool the student recruitment machinery at large universities. Universities are also navigating complex court decisions that have severely limited racial preference in admissions. This is true even when the preferences are used to correct systemic imbalances that restrict minority admissions.

Thanks to the pandemic, universities that previously relied on standardized test scores to identify prospective students had to find other means to evaluate students. Colleges and universities are slow to return to requiring SAT or ACT scores because not requiring them has vastly increased the number of applicants they get. As an added bonus, the demographic composition of each applicant pool more closely resembles the university’s desired demographic. In other words, diverting students from community college classrooms is the perfect place to look for students to fill university classrooms. With their full-tuition scholarships, new dormitories, and bustling campus life, why wouldn’t students aim for a four-year institution right away?

Community colleges aren’t the only places that are suffering. State colleges have also seen significant enrollment declines while enrollment at flagship universities increases. Prospective students are clustering at a state’s flagship universities.

That’s precisely why community colleges need more robust strategies that can bring non-traditional students and those who already have some college credit, back into the classrooms. Many community colleges have gone all-in on so-called stackable credentials. Unfortunately, mounting evidence shows that they have little to no impact for students in terms of employment or earnings. Tomorrow, I will look more closely at stackable credentials to show why they may actually contribute to community college enrollment declines.

Photo Credit: Paul Appleton , via Flickr