May 29, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Community college enrollment grows after decade of declines

Year-over-year change in national enrollment, by select institutional sector
Data: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center; Note: Students concurrently enrolled at multiple institutions are double-counted; Chart: Axios Visuals

Community college enrollment, buoyed by younger students and fresh interest in job-related programs, rose this spring for the first time in more than a decade, according to new data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Why it matters: The high cost of college, economic anxiety and the hot labor market may be leading students to reconsider how to get the most bang for their buck with post-secondary degrees.

  • "I think that students are increasingly looking towards programs and majors that they can see, and easily see, a direct link to the workforce," Doug Shapiro, the executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, said on a call with reporters.

Driving the news: Years of steep declines hit community colleges across the country. Community college enrollment rose 0.5% from the year before, after falling 8.2% and 10.1% in 2022 and 2021.

  • Enrollment in public two-year colleges rose after the 2008 economic recession but started trending downwards in 2010 and plummeted during the pandemic, according to NSC data.
  • The majors at two-year institutions that saw increases this spring include Computer and Information Sciences and Support Services (9.7%), Mechanic and Repair Technologies/Technicians (8.2%), Personal and Culinary Services (9.7%) and Transportation and Materials Moving (11.8%).

By the numbers: Overall postsecondary enrollment still lags heavily behind pre-pandemic levels.

  • Enrollment in bachelor's degree programs fell 1.4% this spring, compared to a 0.4% drop in associate degree program enrollment.
  • While the pandemic fast-tracked the trend of declining college enrollment, undergraduate enrollment stabilized during the spring, dropping just 0.2%.
  • Undergraduate computer science programs at four-year institutions hit their highest growth rate in three years, 11.6%, while two-year institutions saw computer science enrollment soar to above pre-pandemic levels.
  • Graduate-degree enrollment fell 2.2% from spring 2022.

Between the lines: The modest increases in community college enrollment may be attributed to a rising number of younger students participating in dual-degree programs, per the data.

  • The percentage of dual-enrolled high school students increased 8% during the spring term.

Zoom out: The labor market, which added 253,000 jobs in April, is going strong, potentially incentivizing young Americans to get in while it's hot, Shapiro said.

  • "The opportunity costs seem to be continuing to increase for students at all levels," he said, adding that postsecondary institutions need to adapt to the changing needs of students.
  • "Colleges and universities, like the rest of us, need to really think differently about the types of students that they can enroll and the types of programs and services that they need to be able to offer to bring those students in."

Go deeper: Higher education's sea change

Editor's note: This article has been corrected to reflect that Doug Shapiro is the executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, not the National Student Clearinghouse.

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