Community college enrollment fell 7.5% year-over-year this fall — the steepest losses of any institution type, according to preliminary data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
To curb further dips, higher education experts say college leaders should target resources to vulnerable students, as well as prioritize funding for instruction and academic support services.
The report follows a summer marked by a high degree of enrollment uncertainty. Overall, undergraduate enrollment was down 2.5% from a year ago, the center found.
The Clearinghouse report offers a bleak picture for community colleges, which had the largest undergraduate enrollment losses of any institution type. While overall undergraduate enrollment tracked slightly below last year's levels, graduate enrollment rose 3.9%
Community college enrollment changes varied across student populations. Black students and those without U.S. citizenship or a green card fell the most, by 12.1% and 10.9%, respectively, while Asian students dropped the least, by 4.9%.
These declines contrast with some predictions that community colleges would see enrollment gains this fall as students sought less-expensive alternatives to four-year universities during the pandemic. The final numbers may change, however, as the preliminary report only covers 22% of institutions.
Community colleges could be seeing larger enrollment losses because they tend to have more low-income and underrepresented students, said Christina Hubbard, senior director of strategic research at consultancy EAB. "Those are the same students that have the most significant challenges during the pandemic," she said.
Black, Hispanic and Indigenous people are dying from COVID-19, the disease the virus causes, at higher rates than White and Asian people, according to The COVID Tracking Project. And low-income students have been more likely than usual to drop out or not enroll in college this fall, The Washington Post reported.
Tuition revenue losses and state budget cuts could further sap community college budgets.
"Those compounding factors are really brutal," said Justin Ortagus, a higher education professor at the University of Florida. Community college leaders "need to be extremely cautious in spending and planning for the next academic year." He recommends that colleges having to make cuts focus their spending on instruction and academic support services.
Lessons from the last economic downturn offer some hope.
It took a year or two after the Great Recession's onset for students to start flocking to higher education, according to a 2011 Clearinghouse report. "When you see this initial decline, that doesn't necessarily mean that we won't see increases down the road," Ortagus said.
Community college leaders can take several steps to keep their existing students.
Schools can survey students about their needs, Hubbard said. The Higher Education Data Sharing Consortium asked students for their contact information when it surveyed them about their transition online in the spring so officials could connect them with resources.
Colleges can also create online resource centers that centralize important information. "We hit them with so much information, that if it's not relevant to them in that exact moment, a lot of times it just gets filtered out," Hubbard said.