Is there a solution to the community college enrollment crisis?

October 1, 2021

Michael Nietzel

In a recent article that has received much attention, the Wall Street Journal reported that men accounted for about three-fourths of college dropouts since the pandemic.  It further portrayed that loss as a widening of the gender gap apparent in higher education over the past 50 years. Women now account for about 58% of all college students.

The undergraduate enrollment decline was driven by the nation’s community colleges, which saw a 9.5% decrease, equal to about 476,000 fewer students.

 

While the gender imbalance in college enrollment is of obvious importance, it obscures another problem that has reached a crisis level — the dramatic decline in community college attendance — a loss that also happens to be experienced much more severely by men.

The latest figures from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center  show that overall college enrollment fell to 16.9 million students in 2021, down more than 600,000 students from the previous year. That decline of 3.5% is the largest spring semester enrollment decrease since 2011.

The decrease was accounted for entirely by a 4.9% drop in undergraduates, amounting to 727,000 fewer students (graduate enrollments, on the other hand, increased by a healthy 4.6%). The undergraduate enrollment decline was driven by the nation’s community colleges, which saw a 9.5% decrease, equal to about 476,000 fewer students. Men made up almost two-thirds of that loss, meaning that of the entire college enrollment decline, men constitute a disproportionate percentage.

What accounts for the steep decline in community college enrollment, and what can be done about it?

Here are 4 factors to consider.

1.The effects of the pandemic were particularly severe for 2-year institutions.

While the COVID19 pandemic disrupted almost every aspect of higher education, it had a devastating impact on the types of students who have traditionally been drawn to community colleges: minority students, first-generation college students, and students from low-income backgrounds.
These students were hit hardest by the financial setback and family difficulties caused by the pandemic. Thousands of these students were forced to put their college plans on hold while they struggled to just get by during the worst of the recent economic hardships.

2.The shift to remote instruction was a specific handicap for community colleges.

Here, 2 factors were in play. First, many of the programs that students, especially adults, pursue in community colleges require hands-on curricula that don’t translate well into remote instruction. For example, programs in the trades, in culinary arts, nursing and other allied health fields — all big-enrollment majors at 2-year colleges — depend on live supervision of skill-based learning. Remote classes often proved to be an inadequate substitute, leaving students and faculty alike dissatisfied.

Remote classes often proved to be an inadequate substitute, leaving students and faculty alike dissatisfied.

 

Second, many community college prospects are the first in their families to seek advanced education.  As such, they need more guidance and support to consider their options, submit their applications and finalize their enrollments.  The pandemic grounded that assistance to a halt.  At the precise time that greater help from administrators and faculty was needed, the pandemic forced them to step back from in-person recruitment and student support services.

3.The typical relationship between the economy and college enrollment was upended.

When jobs are scarce community college enrollment usually increases as traditional-age and older students seek to improve their credentials to become more competitive in the labor market. For various reasons, that pattern did not happen during the pandemic. Students didn’t flock to college, they fled from it.

Men without college degrees have always had more opportunities than similarly situated women for decent-paying jobs.

 

Conversely, with the job recovery now reaching the point that many employers cannot find enough workers, community colleges are discovering that prospective students are opting for jobs rather than schools. That may help explain the gender difference in the enrollment slump. Men without college degrees have always had more opportunities than similarly situated women for decent-paying jobs. They still do.

4.The move to test-optional admissions by many 4-year colleges may have cut into community college applications.

An updated list of ACT/SAT-optional and test-blind schools released by the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest) shows that more than 1,700 colleges and universities will not require admissions exam scores from applicants seeking enrollment in fall 2022. That is a significant increase across the past 2 years, involving more than 73% of all U.S. bachelor degree granting institutions.

“Test-optional and test-blind policies are the new normal in higher education admissions,” FairTest Executive Director Bob Schaeffer said. “The vast majority of 4-year institutions, including nearly all of the nation’s most-selective schools, no longer rely on ACT/SAT scores to evaluate applicants.”

 

While it’s not known whether the test-optional movement reduced applications to community colleges, it’s a reasonable bet that it had some effect. Students, who feared that their standardized test scores would not be competitive at a 4-year school and opted instead to apply to a community college, now have little to lose by applying to a 4-year college from the outset.

One piece of data consistent with this possibility is that among the 2-year majors suffering the sharpest enrollment decline are those that typically serve as a prelude to a student transferring to a 4-year institution. According to the National Student Clearinghouse data, majors with the biggest losses were in the visual and performing arts (18.1%), multi or interdisciplinary studies (14.1%), and liberal arts and general studies (13.8%).

What can be done?

  • Provide free community college or double the maximum Pell

Guaranteeing 2 years of free community college tuition as proposed in Joe Biden’s American Families Plan, or doubling the maximum Pell Grant as contained in the Pell Grant Preservation and Expansion Act – would make a community college education affordable for millions of more students. It would almost certainly boost enrollments to some degree.

Both initiatives remain legislative long-shots. And free community college or doubled Pell Grants will not be sufficient solutions for the enrollment doldrums on their own. Several state that already pay 2 years of tuition for qualifying students have still seen their numbers drop. Additional steps are necessary.

  • Invest more in student services

Too many students remain intimidated by the processes of applying to college, qualifying for financial aid, and registering for classes. Many others drop out because of a lack of adequate academic advising and career planning.

Community colleges would be well-advised to invest more money in staff to provide aggressive recruiting, intensive advising, and high-touch student support services, all of which had to be pulled back during the pandemic.

Community college students often lack access to the technology that is commonly relied on for most college transactions.

 

Community college students often lack access to the technology that is commonly relied on for most college transactions. As a result, they feel lost or abandoned in environments they perceive as indifferent to their needs. Greater personal attention is essential.

  • Form partnerships with employers

Community colleges need to rethink the usual sequencing of education. The standard timing has been to educate and train students first so they then are prepared to take good jobs. Now, with jobs so plentiful, colleges might want to reverse that order and look to provide the necessary training after individuals have been hired.

That strategy also makes sense given the generous educational benefits many companies are now provide to workers. For example, Target announced recently that it would pay for the full cost of college for its employees, an offer that covers more than 340,000 U.S. workers. Target’s announcement came just a week after Walmart, the nation’s largest private employer, announced it would pay for 100% of college tuition and books for all its part-time and full-time employees. Amazon has now followed suit, with its own free-college benefit.

Community colleges are positioned well to offer employer-reimbursed education and re-skilling.

 

Major employers are mounting these new educational benefits with the assistance of companies like Guild Education, and InStride, both leaders in helping organize employer-provided educational benefits. Since the pandemic began, the take-up rate of such programs has increased with new partners being added on both the 4-year college provider side and on the corporate business side.

Community colleges are positioned well to offer employer-reimbursed education and re-skilling. Their tuition is modest, their academic programming is flexible, and they are accustomed to scheduling classes that suit the needs of adult workers.

  • Forge stronger connections with 4-year schools

To strengthen their appeal as an affordable route to an eventual 4-year degree, community colleges should continue to ease transfer pathways as much as possible through strong articulation agreements that maximize the block transfer of course credits. Another strategy would be to sign agreements with nearby universities and colleges that would allow community college students access to campus activities and amenities at the 4-year school.

  • Allow community colleges to award baccalaureate degrees

An alternative to facilitating transfers to 4-year schools is to enable community colleges to award baccalaureate degrees outright. About half the states now permit their 2-year schools to award B.A. or B.S. degrees in selected fields under certain circumstances. Notwithstanding objections from their 4-year colleagues, community colleges have several natural advantages here.

Final words

Community colleges are usually more nimble than 4-year institutions and therefore can better develop degree programs that address changing workforce needs, particularly in high-demand fields. They can offer bachelor’s degrees to more diverse student populations, especially in areas without nearby 4-year institutions. They’re often designed to serve nontraditional groups such as low-income, first-generation and older students, as well as students of color. And a bachelor’s degree from a community college is usually much less costly than the tuition and fees charged by 4-year institutions. Therefore, the policy helps reduce perennial concerns about affordability and student loan debt.

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