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The Hill
The Hill
15 Apr 2023
Daniel de Visé and Lexi Lonas

NextImg:Community college enrollment plunges nearly 40 percent in a decade

Community college enrollment has plummeted by nearly two-fifths since 2010, a staggering decline in a sector with the potential to offer the greatest value in American higher education. 

Enrollment in public two-year colleges dropped from 7 million in fall 2010 to 4.5 million in fall 2022, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center

The exodus signals a national crisis of confidence in the community college, a symbol of upward mobility for generations of Americans, delivering marketable associate degrees to some graduates and, to others, the first half of a four-year college degree.  

In a sector known for $75,000-a-year tuition, nothing rivals the price point of community college. An average in-state student at a public two-year college pays $3,860 a year, according to College Board data, compared to $10,940 at a public university and $39,400 at a private four-year college. 

“It’s saved me a lot of money,” said Tenzin Tsega, 21, of Fairfax, Va., a student at Northern Virginia Community College. “I also found a really great community here. A lot of the students who attend are first-generation, low-income students who are just like me.” 

Northern Virginia Community College charges $185.50 per credit hour to Virginians, or about $2,225 per 12-credit term.  

Miami Dade College, in Florida, charges even less: $1,419 per semester for local residents.  

“We haven’t raised tuition in 10 years,” said Madeline Pumariega, president of Miami Dade. “Of the 122,000 students we serve, less than 2 percent take on any debt, and when they do, it’s an average of $5,000.” 

Community colleges have always had a reputation as an affordable degree for students in unique circumstances who might not be able to swing a four-year institution but still want a good-paying job, positions that often require at least some higher education in the modern market.

“I think in the long run these institutions are just very well positioned to support strong communities, a strong economy, racial equity,” said Marcella Bombardieri, a senior fellow at Center for American Progress. 

But community colleges face a perennial struggle with low graduation rates. Only 43 percent of community-college students earn degrees within six years. The national completion rate is 62 percent. 

Andres Acosta, 20, an alumnus of Miami Dade College, said he “didn’t like the experience” at his school.

“Classes were easy to register for, and contacting advisement and setting up meetings were no real problem,” Acosta said. However, he added, “it felt like a lot of teachers did not really care.”

“Similarly, the atmosphere is one that feels like no one really wants to be there, they’re just there,” he said.

Though community college left him underwhelmed, Acosta graduated with his associate’s degree and is going on to pursue a bachelor’s. 

Some students, however, are bypassing community college and enrolling directly in four-year public colleges, which come with higher price tags but offer better odds for an eventual bachelor’s degree.

“Anyone who can is moving upmarket,” said Davis Jenkins, a senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University.

Other students are skipping college altogether for jobs that pay $15 to $20 an hour and require no college degree. 

“Prospective students are sitting there thinking, ‘I can get a job, or I can go to college,’” said Joshua Wyner, executive director of the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute. “In big cities now, you can go to McDonald’s and earn $20 an hour.” 

Community college enrollment fell in an era of low unemployment and plentiful jobs. It fell further amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which sapped enrollment across higher education. The dramatic decline, chronicled by the nonprofit Hechinger Report, has barely registered outside academia.   

Bombardieri said that while the drop in community college enrollment over the past decade is concerning, it is important to note the institutions were at their peak attendance 10 years ago.

“It’s a little bit potentially misleading impression,” she said of the decline, “because 10 years ago was like the height of community college enrollment, which was as a result of the Great Recession. There’s just a huge, huge kind of sudden surge of people going into community colleges, and so that was an interesting, historical moment.”

Americans flocked to community colleges during that time, when jobs were scarce, to retool their skills. But when the pandemic arrived a decade layer, devastating the global economy and bringing on mass job losses, they mostly stayed away. 

“During the last economic downturn in 2008 – 2009, community colleges experienced a surge of enrollments across the board. However, the same effect was not experienced in the pandemic or post-pandemic, due in part to unprecedented government stimulus support,” said Rebecca Corbin, president and CEO of the National Association for Community College Entrepreneurship. 

One bright spot in the two-year sector is dual enrollment programs, which allow high-school students to take classes at the local community college. That population is growing. “In rural colleges, it’s often half of their headcount,” Jenkins said. 

Beyond that high school population, community colleges are far more likely than four-year institutions to enroll students who are older, have low incomes, hold jobs and care for parents or children. 

In 2023, the average community college student is 27, almost a third of students are the first in their families to attend college, and 16 percent are single parents, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. 

During the pandemic, “they had to keep the lights on, literally and figuratively, for their families,” said Mark Milliron, a longtime community-college scholar who now serves as president of National University in San Diego. 

The historic mission of community colleges is twofold: To prepare some students for transfer into four-year colleges and to send others out into the world with associate degrees and professional certifications that yield good-paying jobs.  

Some associate degrees, especially “applied” degrees in lucrative fields, pay handsome dividends for graduates. Yet, the earning power of a generic associate of arts degree is not what it was 20 or 50 years ago. 

Some community colleges are thriving. Others are struggling, and the downturn cannot be blamed solely on the institutions, Bombardieri argues. Lawmakers must take responsibility for their role. 

“It’s really important to keep in mind that, you know, community colleges are public institutions. They’re dependent on public funding and public support,” she said. “The reasons that they have a lot of the problems … by and large go back to just lack of public investment in making them successful.”

Underfunded community colleges may employ only one academic adviser for every 500 or 1,000 students. Students get lost in the shuffle. 

“When we talk to community college students,” Jenkins said, “we say, ‘How long till you finish? What do you have to take?’ They have no idea.” 

Without proper guidance, community college students can bog down, wasting time and money on “a random smattering of courses that don’t add up to anything the labor market values,” Wyner said. 

Students who transfer from community colleges to four-year institutions often find that the four-year school won’t accept much of their coursework for transfer credit. 

To recover lost enrollment, researchers say, community colleges should look to Florida, where all public colleges use the same course numbering system to ease transfer credit, and to the Alamo Colleges District in San Antonio, Texas, where advisers meet with students at regular intervals to monitor their progress, and to Northern Virginia Community College, where students can seek dual admission to the four-year George Mason University. 

Forward-thinking community colleges are working with employers to create and refine certificate programs, typically much shorter than degree programs, delivering training in a specific field. 

“Colleges such as Tallahassee Community College in Florida have developed skilled trades programs like aqua culture that meet an industry need and provide environmental benefits. More broadly, community colleges are offering more certificate programs that are created with employers,” Corbin said.