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Texas university enrollment may be canary in the coalmine

Texas higher education officials announced last week that undergraduate university enrollment in that state exceeded community college enrollment for the first time in two decades. Community college enrollment for the fall 2021 semester dropped by nearly 11.5% compared to a 2% increase in enrollment at the state’s four-year universities. Overall, post-secondary enrollment declined there by 4%, regardless of institution type.

Several factors could explain the shift in enrollment patterns. Right now, the spread is only about 2,000 students. One likely contributor is the number of universities that have adopted test-optional admissions policies during the pandemic. Students who do not perform well on standard admission tests like the SAT or ACT may often enroll at a community college and transfer to their preferred university later. With test-optional admission policies, students may believe their chances of being admitted to a four-year university increase.

The long-term future of test-optional admission policies is unclear. Many universities found that eliminating standardized testing requirements increased the diversity of their applicant pool.

According to the Michigan Association of State Universities (MASU), 217,706 undergraduate students enrolled t\at the state’s four-year public universities in 2019-2020 was 217,706 students. For the same period, 312,865 students enrolled at a community college.

University enrollment may provide a window to community colleges’ future

These figures represent Michigan’s pre-pandemic community college and university enrollment. But as enrollment drops at the state’s community colleges, undergraduate university enrollment may rise.

Rising enrollment at universities doesn’t mean that all would-be community college students opted for university admissions instead. But certainly some students who performed poorly on standard admission tests took advantage of the temporary change in admission standards.

Community college enrollment declines may reflect applicants’ uncertainty regarding remote learning. It could also represent a drop in perceived value of a community college degree compared to a bachelor’s degree.

A prolonged waiver of admission testing requirements could interfere with community college enrollment among recent high school graduates. The best way to tackle this is by substantially increasing the value of community college degrees. On average, Michigan community college graduates earn just $2.67 more per hour than high school graduates with no post-secondary credits. That’s simply not enough to make the case for enrolling in a community college degree program.

Photo Credit: Calamity Sal, via Flickr