Overall enrollment in higher education is down significantly – nearly 15% from Fall 2020 to Spring 2022. Community colleges have taken a particularly heavy hit with an enrollment decline of more than 20% this year, compared to pre-pandemic figures. That’s more than 370,000 students who attended community colleges in Spring 2020 who were not enrolled in Spring 2022.
Affordability is certainly one of the primary barriers many students face when considering post-secondary education. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act and Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) funding have provided some tuition relief, but community colleges continue to shoulder much of the burden as post-pandemic, fewer people are able to attend college than in years past.
Why is that? It is not due solely to the financial challenges associated with investing in higher education. Students from underrepresented backgrounds comprise a large percentage of community college students and are among the population segments most impacted by the country’s economic downturn. Many of these students also deal with complicating factors such as working full-time and/or raising a family in addition to attending college.
Of course, the pandemic hasn’t helped matters. Typically, community colleges would see a higher enrollment when there is an economic downturn. However, during the pandemic, we haven’t seen as much of that. Overall, community colleges have lost more than 827,000 students since the emergence of COVID-19. Enrollment figures for Black, Hispanic and Native American students in particular have dipped over the last several years as community college courses switched from mostly in-person to mostly virtual.
Although many community colleges are in the same dire situation, some are in great shape when it comes to enrollment and affordability. These schools typically are the ones that offer strong, in-demand academic programs that were formed in close collaboration with local employers. Degree pathways that provide a direct pipeline to the local workforce add significant value to community college students, as well as create a strong partnership with the community. After all, there is no better ROI than getting hired directly out of school in a field that is valued and, in theory, comes with long-term job security. A strong career placement success rate ultimately benefits the students, the college and the community – a win-win-win.
Unfortunately, that scenario is often not the reality for a lot of two-year colleges and the communities they support. And now with a recession likely on the horizon, it is difficult to predict what will happen in the future, making it even more important to establish these partnerships sooner rather than later.