Why it’s important to talk about the decline in community college enrollment nationwide


According to figures from the National Student Clearinghouse, enrollment in more than 1,000 two-year colleges across the U.S. is down by 9.5%. While that may not seem like it is a lot, it’s more than double the loss four-year schools have faced. For Black and Latino student enrollment, the decline is even higher. While Black students saw a 19% drop from 2019 to 2020, Latino students saw a 16% drop.

“Many of our students come to college with challenges,” Tracy D. Hall, president of Southwest Tennessee Community College in Memphis, told the Times. “Now you add a pandemic to that, it just exacerbates it.”

Not only is access to education impacted by the lack of enrollment, but community college budgets are severely affected as well. As enrollment declines continue, schools are given less funding, ultimately resulting in an increase in further economic disparities and fewer educational opportunities. As funding is decreased, colleges are also forced to cut programs and available positions.

Historically, community colleges have provided low-cost options for diverse student populations that are unable to invest in a four-year college. They also allow for training and skill development for those who wish to pursue careers that require specific training and education. According to the Times, about 27% of the country’s more than 17 million college students are enrolled in these two-year programs. Without these opportunities and low-cost options, many students are unable to afford higher education otherwise.

Many community colleges serve students who face other obstacles outside of the educational system, including pre-pandemic food and housing insecurity. According to a 2019 report, food insecurities were as high as 49% at two-year institutions, compared to 40% at four-year institutions. Studies also found that students who lacked internet and other facilities at home relied on school facilities to complete coursework.

In addition to job loss and higher rates of unemployment, the pandemic has furthered food insecurity, which has resulted in many students leaving colleges. Without food and housing, going to school is not an option. These issues are even greater in communities of color, who already struggled with these economic disparities prior to the pandemic.

Multiple students told the Times that due to the financial burden of working, school was not a priority. This doesn’t mean that school was not important to these students, but instead the students were forced to choose between survival and educating themselves further.

As students of color are forced to choose between working and going to class, the educational inequalities already present in society are deepening. Many of the students who have left colleges amid the pandemic already had a difficult time gaining access to this education, making the situation even worse with the difficulties the pandemic has brought. For those students who had tuition-free options due to grants, job disruptions amid the pandemic made going to school more difficult in addition to other costs like paying for basic living expenses adding up.

According to surveys conducted by Census Bureau, data indicates that anywhere from 7.7 million to 10 million adults canceled plans to take post-secondary classes last fall because of financial constraints related to the pandemic. Students in low-income households were even more likely to cancel plans despite needing higher education more than others, TIME magazine reported. While the need for higher education has grown with most jobs requiring a post-secondary degree, the costs associated have not declined. 

Additionally, with school programs going completely online, many students were forced to drop out because of the inability to complete coursework at home, whether that be due to lack of access or other commitments at home, including child care and caring for those impacted by the virus. 

“Students are balancing teaching at home, having to change hours because of either being laid off or their job responsibilities changed. There are just so many variables in their life that changed, and they couldn’t manage school anymore,” said Jason Hurst, president of Cleveland Community College, said.

Other disparities, including lacking access to health care, have also deterred students from attending college. School officials have noticed that misinformation in addition to lack of health care has kept students away from schools that are not remote because of fear associated with getting the virus. While this fear is valid, it sheds light on the lack of access to quality health care that many residents face.

“It’s depressing,” Russ Deaton, executive vice chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, which oversees community colleges in the state, told the Times. “A lot of the students we’ve lost were loosely tethered to higher education anyway. It didn’t take much to push them out of the education path.”

With a decline in students attending college, funding for colleges has similarly decreased. This results in forced layoffs of community college staff as schools struggle to make budget requirements. President Joe Biden’s stimulus package has hopes for fixing this issue by focusing on educational equity and offering free education to some at two-year schools. While this will not address the issue of job disruptions, it will allow for students to have access to education and the flexibility to use student aid to pay for things like housing, food, and books, congressional aides who have been briefed on aspects of the proposal noted, according to The New York Times.

The pandemic is hindering educational opportunities for the country’s most vulnerable students. We must do more to create not only more affordable but more accessible programs. Offering low-cost and free tuition is only the first step. Without addressing the other issues at hand that impact the decision to pursue higher education, free and low-cost programs will not be successful. We need to first address basic human needs including access to nutrition, food, housing security, and health care. Without addressing these needs, our effort to provide equal education will not succeed.

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