New federal data show two-year enrollment trends by age

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Recently released federal higher education data show community college enrollment trends during the first two years of the pandemic differed based on the age of the students, according to a new analysis by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College. The analysis found that community college enrollments fell steeply over all, but the greatest declines were among recent high school graduates. Older adults experienced declines as well, continuing a trend of the last decade.

Some community colleges notably bucked the trends, however, and experienced steady or increasing enrollment. Further, the number of high school students taking dual-enrollment courses continued to grow in most states.

The analysis, shared in a blog post last week, draws on new fall 2021 enrollment data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, made public in late December. The federal enrollment data are only reported disaggregated by age in odd-numbered years, so they now offer a more nuanced and granular picture of what happened to community college enrollment in those initial pandemic years.

John Fink, senior research associate and program lead at CCRC, said the differences in enrollment patterns among different age groups have implications for how colleges might recoup their losses going forward.

There’s value to “tailoring outreach and support for each of these groups,” he said.

The data show community colleges enrolled 850,000 fewer students nationally in fall 2021 compared to fall 2019, including significant drops among students of color. Notably, Hispanic student enrollment, which was increasing prior to the pandemic, fell 12 percent over all. But 15 states increased Hispanic student enrollment during this period and Georgia, Ohio, New Hampshire and Vermont had double-digit percentage increases, according to the analysis.

Recent high school graduates were a significant pain point for community colleges in the first two years of the pandemic. From fall 2019 to fall 2021, 586,000 fewer of these students enrolled in community colleges, more than double the enrollment loss of 277,000 older adult learners over the same period.

Fink said some recent high school graduates went to four-year institutions instead, but “it also seems like a lot of students weren’t transferring or going to university. It just seems like there are a lot of recent high school grads out there who just didn’t go to any college at all.”

Monica Parrish Trent, chief program and network officer at Achieving the Dream, an organization focused on community college student success, said she saw firsthand as a parent how traditional-age students were deterred from going to college by virtual learning and social isolation during the pandemic.

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“My son who was in high school said to me directly, ‘If the pandemic continues, I’m not going to college,’” she said. “I don’t think we can underestimate the impact the pandemic had on our young people who were socially disconnected at a time when they were really in the crux of important things in their adolescent years, preparing for college … For some of the students who had to learn virtually in college and high school, they really were interested in more of a traditional experience.”

She noted that, faced with these trends, colleges should target their marketing to each of the age groups and offer them different supports to keep them enrolled. For example, she said adult learners need “flexible pathways that lead to living, sustaining-wage jobs” so that they can “see the gain and the impact that it’s going to have on their family financially.” Meanwhile traditional-age students might need reassurance about the “value of a college education, the value of going to a community college, in terms of the savings and the ability to stay connected to your family and to have the kind of wraparound supports that many community colleges offer,” she said.

Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations at the American Association of Community Colleges, noted that recent high school grads who enroll in community colleges are disproportionately first-generation students who often struggle to navigate the “inside baseball” of the admissions and enrollment processes under the best of circumstances, let alone at a time when colleges were serving students remotely.

However, she believes the declines, particularly among older adults, may not be quite as dire as they appear in the CCRC analysis. The blog post notes that only students in credit-bearing courses were counted in the analysis—according to data from the AACC, 4.1 million students are enrolled in noncredit courses.

Hopeful ‘Outliers’

Unlike other age groups, the number of dual-enrollment students at community colleges increased, the data show. Community colleges gained 10,000 more students under the age of 18, a modest increase compared to the upward trajectory of dual enrollment prior to the pandemic. Nonetheless, dual enrollment grew in 30 states during that time, with double-digit increases in 17 states. These students came to make up a larger share of community college students, given enrollment losses among other age groups. In fall 2021, 18.3 percent of community college students nationwide were under 18, compared to 15.7 percent in fall 2019, according to the analysis.

High school dual enrollment also outpaced older adult enrollment at 299 colleges nationwide and in 13 states, up from only three states in 2019. Data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found high school dual enrollment grew 11.5 percent from fall 2021 to fall 2022, indicating ongoing growth.

Parham said dual-enrollment increases are good news, but they also can’t be colleges’ only recovery strategy. She described dual enrollment as a “wonderful” opportunity for high school students to get ahead, but not a saving grace for colleges.

Funding for dual enrollment varies vastly from state to state, and it “kind of disrupts the flow of students, if you will,” Parham said. “If you have all of these high school graduates who also completed their associate degrees, that’s also a whole swath of students who won’t be coming in as freshmen … It all just needs to be part of a larger vision and a larger strategic plan for local college enrollments.”

Fink said studying the “outliers,” colleges that didn’t lose enrollment during this period, could be an important learning opportunity for community college administrators as they develop these strategies to regain enrollment.

The analysis found that over all, about 90 community colleges saw enrollment increases during the initial phase of the pandemic. It suggests increases in dual enrollment accounted for much of the growth, but some colleges also made gains in other age groups. About 150 colleges had enrollment increases among adult learners, about 55 colleges made gains among recent high school graduates and 30 colleges had enrollment rise among students ages 18 and older over all.

“What did the colleges do that were able to maintain enrollment or even grow enrollment among these different populations through the pandemic?” Fink said. “Are there sort of common policies or practices, things like free tuition and other sort of supports that were useful, particularly for colleges that were able to grow enrollment among non-dual-enrollment students? How did states respond during the pandemic to support their colleges, and can you sort of discern state differences that might indicate recommendations for state leaders about how they can support their community colleges to build back?”

Enrollment data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center also show that community college enrollment losses improved between fall 2021 and 2022. So it’s still unclear “what happened after fall ’21 with these students,” Fink said. “This is the hot-off-the-press data, but it already feels way too old. What happened after this snapshot?”

“I feel like this is the beginning,” he added. The analysis “raises more questions than answers.”

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