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Using data to tackle enrollment declines

Community colleges have suffered significant enrollment declines during the pandemic, but the pandemic is not the cause. Other controllable factors, including rising costs, growing student loan debt, and value of a degree (or certificate) after graduation impact enrollment declines. Uncontrollable factors, like the employment landscape and competition from four-year institutions, have taken another bite from community college classrooms.

A new report from Sallie Mae (formerly the Student Loan Marketing Association) offers some new insights into who graduates (or doesn’t) from college. Sallie Mae conducted the survey work for the report earlier this year. While some of the data reinforce what we already know about college completion, new data may inform some strategies to reduce enrollment declines.

Experience counts Without doubt, the most likely predictor of college completion is having at least one parent who completed college. Among those who completed college, 69% had a parent with a post-secondary degree of some kind. For those who did not finish, 51% had a parent with a college degree.

Household income matters Another strong predictor of college completion (71%) was the household income (in childhood) of individuals who completed a post-secondary degree. In other words, people who grew up in middle-class, upper middle class or upper class households were strong candidates for completing a degree. Among those who reported growing up in low-income households, only 50% completed a post-secondary credential.

It’s not what you know; it’s where you go. Another strong predictor of completion was the type of institution the respondent attended. Completers were overwhelmingly more likely (84%) to attend a four-year school. On the other hand, a high proportion of non-completers attended a community college.

Other factors that explain enrollment declines

Where you work matters Interestingly, most students – whether they completed a degree or not – worked while in school. For non-completers, however, where they worked made a difference. Most non-completers (61%) worked off-campus. They also worked more hours than those who finished a degree. That’s likely the result of a student’s full-time/part-time status. Many students who enroll in a community college attend part-time. The demands of work and school may complicate the path to completing a degree.

Within these insights, it’s easy to see that many community college students are not initially set up to succeed. First-generation college student from low-income households may gravitate to community colleges. Without strong systems in place to provide additional support, naturally, these students will be less likely to succeed. Students who cannot commit to studying full-time because they need to work may need additional financial aid, tutoring, preferred registration services (to ensure they can enroll in classes during their available hours), weekend classes, additional academic advising, and other support to help them remain accountable to their educational goals.

Additionally, working students may need support (like scheduling flexibility) from their employers. This can be tricky because some students may not want to let their employer know that they are in school, or their employer may require a rigid work schedule. A community college may be able to help a student work through employment-related challenges or offer stipends to discourage students from working additional hours while they are in school.

This is the kind of recruiting work community colleges must do if they intend to reverse their enrollment declines. Tomorrow, I’ll look at how and when student decisions impact their ability to complete a college program.

Photo Credit: COD Newsroom, via Flickr