What We Can Do About Community College Enrollment Declines



Quick facts:

  • 11.8% drop in enrollment for public-two year institutions during the pandemic

  • 53% of students are not ready for undergraduate studies after high school

  • 70% of California students fail to graduate or transfer to a four-year college

Community colleges have been facing enrollment problems since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic which has only continued into the Spring 2022 semester with public two-year institutions seeing a 7.8 percent drop in student enrollment according to the latest report by the National Student Clearinghouse. In the same report, community college enrollment declined in the pre-pandemic era as well with the data showing a 3.4 percent drop in enrollment in 2019.


Why has enrollment declined in community colleges in the past few years? The drop in students enrolled is alarming especially since some sectors of the labor market require a degree to secure a job after college. In order to understand why enrollment is dropping, we need to first understand the issues community colleges face to gain more insight:

  • Underprepared students

  • Low graduation rates

  • Not connecting the learning experience

Before we consider increasing the number of students enrolling in community college, we need to fix the holes in the system itself.


As enrollment declines, colleges and universities are left with one question: how do we increase future enrollments? Let's dive into the biggest problems facing two-year institutions and what we can do to fix them.


Problems Community Colleges are Facing


Underprepared students

Before we consider how to increase the number of students enrolled in two-year colleges, we need to first understand the issues they face. Students entering community colleges are finding themselves at an academic disadvantage because of the lack of proper preparation for college while in high school or from older students who decided to seek a degree later in life.


This disconnect from the skills learned as high school students mean schools are forced to remediate parts of their student body so they can find some success in higher education.


According to the American Association of Colleges and Universities, 53 percent of high school graduates are not prepared for the rigors of college because of their reading, writing, or mathematics shortcomings. When you pair that with the fact that the average age of community college students is 29 and have likely lost many of the skills they learned in high school, it is clear that there is a problem with underprepared students in community colleges.


If community colleges want to see growth in undergraduate enrollment, there must be initiatives in place for students to be ready for their postsecondary education before it begins. Offering students ways to upskill and seek support from their peers and instructors before classes begin is critical.


Low graduation rates


Among community colleges in California, a shocking 70 percent of all students fail to either graduate

or transfer to four-year institutions — and this isn't just a problem with two-year colleges.


Across all undergraduate institutions, only 45 percent of all students will complete college in four years.

There are many reasons for low graduation rates ranging from the cost of postsecondary education with fewer students finding the value of college not worth the price tag to higher education programs not connecting coursework to the careers of students.


The bottom line is that higher ed needs to prove to high school graduates and college students that their investment in time and money will pay off. How can a higher education institution show that college is worth it? How can we keep students from dropping out?



Having a disjointed learning experience

Not only does the data show a drop in student graduation rates, but students who attend community colleges — as well as other higher education institutions — often do not always receive a holistic learning experience.


This is a problem across all of higher education: a lack of a connected learning experience. Most colleges offer their students a collection of courses in order for them to earn a degree, but few truly connect what students learn at their university to their careers and lives.



This disconnect leaves students wondering, "Why should I spend this money for college when I can enter the workforce now?"


Community colleges are also typically commuter campuses with non-traditional age students which means they may have a wider array of life experiences, commitments, and responsibilities compared to those who live in dorms at four-year universities. Because of this, students have a higher chance of feeling isolated from their peers and may be less likely to reach out for help which may result in dropping out entirely.


Connecting the learning experience by giving students opportunities across their entire learning journey to 1) form community with their peers and instructors, at their own pace 2) reflect on real connections in their studies to their careers, and 3) receive academic and emotional support is critical for community colleges so they can retain more of their student body. If getting a college education doesn't meet the needs of the modern student, we will continue to see a decline in postsecondary enrollment and retention.




What can we do to see positive enrollment and retention trends?


Meet the needs of the modern learner

At the start of the pandemic, colleges and universities were forced to search for solutions when nearly every institution in the world closed its doors and students had to learn at home. Students weren't told that their education had to be put on hold but instead continued their education online.


This is a prime example of higher education adapting to the needs of its students. Higher ed recognized how important it was to build a more robust online learning infrastructure, and nearly every college went online — seemingly overnight.


If a university can make these vast changes so quickly, it is surely possible to make structural changes to education systems in order to ensure we meet the needs of every student.


One simple step institutions can take to improve enrollment and retention is to enable the opportunity for informal, meaningful interactions between students, especially in distance learning or commuter campus settings. Some quick community examples institutions can create with Yellowdig are below:

  1. Pre-enrollment communities: have prospective students interact with current student ambassadors and other prospective students to gain a deeper understanding of your institution.

  2. Welcome communities: Admitted students have many pre-college jitters. Enable students to support each other, make friends, and navigate their new experiences together.

  3. Course communities: Student engagement has a direct positive effect on student satisfaction. Enable learners to discuss, debate, and explore course concepts with their peers, while bringing in relevant connections to their real careers and lives.



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