Community College Enrollment Up Due to Increase in Younger Students

Younger students are driving community college enrollment growth with an 8% increase in dual-enrolled high school students.

Community College Enrollment Up Due to Increase in Younger Students

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Community college enrollment increased slightly this spring after large declines in the previous two years, according to a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

From spring 2022 to spring 2023, enrollment went up 0.55%, totaling 22,000 students. A growing number of younger students, primarily dual-enrolled high school students and freshmen, contributed to the uptick in community college enrollment. Undergraduate enrollment at public and private nonprofit four-year institutions is still declining but at slower rates (-0.5% and -0.2%, respectively).

After pandemic-driven declines began to level off last fall, overall undergraduate enrollment declined but remained stable for the spring term (down 0.2% or 25,000 students). In comparison, graduate-level enrollment is declining significantly — down 2.2% or 68,000 students from spring 2022. Furthermore, total postsecondary enrollment remains well below pre-pandemic levels — down around 1.09 million students overall and about 1.16 million undergraduates alone compared to spring 2020.

“Despite encouraging signs of recovery among younger students at community colleges, overall undergraduate enrollment is still well below pre-pandemic levels, especially among degree-seeking students,” said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “With the pandemic now behind us, a new set of factors appears to be preventing students from returning to campuses. And these new factors are having a stronger effect on students who are seeking bachelor’s degrees than on associate-seekers.”

See why these declines matter for public schools

Freshman enrollment grew 9.2% from spring 2022. However, the researchers note the percent increases in spring freshmen enrollment are based on a far smaller scale than in fall. Community colleges accounted for the majority of spring freshmen (53.9%) and had the largest increases of any sector (12.4%), leading to a spring 2023 community college freshman class 7% larger than the spring 2020 levels.

Undergraduate-level students are also shifting the type of credentials they pursue with enrollments in bachelor’s degree programs dropping more than associate degree programs — down 1.4% or 114,000 students versus 0.4% or 15,000 students). Graduate-level enrollment drops are almost entirely due to losses in master’s programs, down 57,000 students, according to the report.

Additional highlights from the report include:

  • Younger students are driving community college enrollment growth with an 8% increase in dual-enrolled high school students (49,000) and a 1.1% increase in 18-24-year-old enrollment (24,000)
  • Since 2019, the median age of a community college student has dropped by more than a year (down from 20.7 to 19.5 for men and down from 20.4 to 19.1 for women
  • Enrollment under age 18 has grown by 13.6% and each of the two older age groups is declining more steeply (22.5% for age 18-24 and 25.7% for age over 24)
  • Female enrollment declined by 1.2% or 118,000 students while male enrollment grew slightly by 0.4% or 25,000 students
  • Nearly all states follow the national trend, with slowing declines, stabilization, or growth over last spring
  • Computer science undergraduate programs at four-year institutions reached their highest growth rate in three years, up 11.6% or 62,000 students
  • For two-year institutions, computer science enrollments are above pre-pandemic levels, reversing three years of flat or declining numbers

Read the full report here.

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