Community College Enrollment Is Way Down. That Could Be Bad for Economic Recovery

commentary

Nov 17, 2020

People walk outside Hostos Community College in the Bronx borough of New York, December 16, 2017, photo by Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

People walk outside Hostos Community College in the Bronx borough of New York, December 16, 2017

Photo by Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

Enrollment at America's community colleges is down by nearly 10 percent compared with before the pandemic. In first-time enrollment, the decline is even more steep—down by nearly a quarter compared with last fall.

This is a sign of trouble not just for community college students—who are more than a third of all U.S. college students—but also for the community college system, the nation's workforce, and any U.S. economic recovery.

For first-generation college students, particularly students of color and those from low-income families, community college can be a path to a four-year degree or a middle-skill career. Associate degree earners, research shows, secure higher-paying jobs than those with a high school diploma and have more stability in employment. Greater investment in community colleges also promotes social mobility among degree recipients and economic development in their communities.

But even as the pandemic wreaks havoc on job opportunities, students—or potential students—find their need for training in conflict with other economic pressures and COVID-19 risks. Access to child care, which enables women in particular to pursue their studies, has evaporated. The poorest are under incredible strain, and some campuses have responded by offering emergency aid as well as helping students apply for food programs and unemployment insurance.

The rapid shift to remote coursework has left some students questioning the quality of instruction or scrambling to get a computer and broadband internet access.

Share on Twitter

At the same time, the rapid shift to remote coursework has left some students questioning the quality of instruction or scrambling to get a computer and broadband internet access.

There have been substantial enrollment declines among all groups of community college students, but the most drastic are for men who are Black (minus 21 percent) or Hispanic (minus 19 percent). These students' future prospects could be harmed far beyond our current period of economic instability.

This also bodes poorly for continued economic recovery. Community and technical colleges provide most of the training for middle-skills jobs (PDF)—ones that require more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year degree. Even before the pandemic, the availability of middle-skills jobs outpaced the supply of qualified workers. As community colleges struggle to attract students, this gap will only grow.

Such marked enrollment declines also leave community colleges in a perilous financial position. They operate on thin margins during the best of times and have already begun to feel the effects of state budget cuts and less tuition revenue. Budget troubles have led to layoffs and furloughs at colleges across the nation.

Without intervention, these institutions may not weather the storm. Although public community colleges are less likely to fully close up shop than nonprofit-sector institutions, a financial gutting could lead to closing satellite campuses or eliminating academic departments.

Budget troubles have led to layoffs and furloughs at colleges across the nation. Without intervention, these institutions may not weather the storm.

Share on Twitter

Congress made provisions for community and technical colleges in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, and Coronavirus Child Care and Education Relief Act (CCCERA). These funds were not earmarked specifically for higher education, however, and many states have allocated them to satisfy other needs and budget shortfalls. Congress's actions to date are insufficient to offset cuts from state tax revenue declines.

If community colleges are to fulfill their vital function during the nascent recovery and beyond, they may need short-term, emergency funding to pay fixed expenses—such as rent, utilities, and faculty payroll—that they continue to incur despite lower enrollment. In the longer term, states and the federal government could consider investing in training pipelines for high-demand fields that require some postsecondary training, such as dental hygienists, web developers, and aircraft mechanics, as millions of unemployed Americans will need training for new careers.

Individual students also need help to keep pursuing their education through the pandemic. New York State, for instance, made SNAP benefits available to low-income college students who were enrolled at least half-time. The federal government could move quickly to help by using existing mechanisms, such as increasing the amount of Pell Grants or adding supplemental pandemic support for Pell-eligible students. Either would provide needed money for technology, child care, housing, and other costs related to going to school.

The U.S. economy was already changing before COVID-19, and the pandemic has accelerated many of those forces. If they find the support they need, public community and technical colleges can infuse critical talent into the labor force during economic recovery.


Jenna Kramer is an associate policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation; her research focuses on postsecondary transitions and success. Shelly Culbertson is a senior policy researcher focusing on education in emergencies, disasters, and post-conflict settings at RAND. Shanthi Nataraj is a senior economist and director of the Labor and Workforce Development Program at RAND.