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What’s causing the community college enrollment decline

If you ask community college administrators what’s causing community college enrollment declines, you may hear COVID-19. Or “the enrollment cliff.” Or both. Realistically, the answer is neither. Yes, as a group, community college students don’t perform well in online classes, so they might drop out. And yes, the birth rate is dropping. Fewer babies mean fewer future adults, right?

But these two factors are not causing the community college enrollment decline. To better understand what’s happening, look not at who is entering the labor force, but rather, who is leaving it. The Baby Boomers are retiring in increasingly large numbers. This wave of retirements is creating gaps in the labor force. Demand for labor is causing more new workers to enter the job market directly.

The Baby Boomers were born between 1946 and 1964. From 1947- 1964, the number of US births exceeded 3.5 million each year. 1946 was the only year of the baby boom with a birth rate of less than 3.5 million. From 1951 to 1957, the number of births grew each year. From 1957 to 1961, the number of annual births remained relatively constant, and between 1962 and 1964, the number of births declined each year. However, the number of births between 1954 and 1964 always exceeded 4 million per year.

Between 1965 and 1971, the number of births in the US exceeded 3.5 million every year. At no time since 1945 have births in the US fallen below 3 million per year. Further, at no time since 1979 have the number of births in the US dropped below 3.5 million per year. (And every year between 2000 and 2009 saw a birth rate that exceeded 4 million.)

The problem simply isn’t the number of babies being born.

Labor demand is driving community college enrollment decline

For Boomers born between 1946-1955, full retirement age is 66. To no one’s surprise, Boomers began exiting the workforce in 2012. Those newly eligible for full retirement in 2020 were those born in 1954, the first of the decade of 4M births-per-year. Correspondingly, the number of Boomer retirements in 2020 doubled the number of Boomer retirements in 2019. The 2021 retirement data are not yet available, but the number of births in 1955 approximately matched the number of births in 1954. Accordingly, we should expect to see a similar number of 2021 retirements.

There was a noticeable increase in the number of births in 1956 and 1957. As such, there will be a noticeable increase in the number of retirements in 2022 and 2023. From 2024 through 2027, the retirement rate will remain comparable to 2023.

But there’s more to this game than sheer numbers. Hispanic, Black, and Asian Baby Boomers have remained in the workforce longer than White Baby Boomers. Additionally, Baby Boomers who earned a bachelor’s degree have remained in the workforce, while those with less than a high school diploma, a high school diploma, or some college have tended to retire early or on time. This may indicate that people with lower educational attainment may have performed more physically demanding jobs or may have retired earlier for health reasons.

If Baby Boomers with low educational attainment retire in larger numbers, employers may seek to recruit similarly situated replacement workers. When work is widely available, recent high school graduates have less incentive to go to college.

The problem is less about declining population than it is about increased economic opportunity. Administrators will simply need to work harder if they want to stave off continued community college enrollment declines.

Photo Credit: Michael Coghlan , via Flickr