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Community College Enrollment in Fall 2020: What We Know So Far

Regional Matters
May 11, 2021


Historically, enrollment in higher education has followed a countercyclical pattern, meaning it tends to increase when current economic activity and job prospects decline. Community college enrollment increased dramatically during the past three recessions, with Fifth District community college enrollment growth exceeding 20 percent during the Great Recession. (See chart below.) However, the COVID-19 crisis, and subsequent recession, shows an entirely different pattern, with community college enrollment declining alongside gross domestic product (GDP). Initial data indicate that national community college full-time headcount enrollment fell by 10.6 percent in fall 2020.

National Community College Enrollment in Fall 2020

Until final enrollment figures are released via the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) later this year, specific Fifth District enrollment patterns by demographic characteristics remain unknown. However, data from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC), which release more timely data, provide us with some insight into national patterns. While IPEDS contains the full universe of schools, roughly 97 percent of all higher education institutions report their data to the NSC regularly.

Schools report enrollment using two statistics: headcount enrollment and full-time equivalency (FTE) enrollment. Headcount enrollment counts each individual student regardless of how many credit hours they are currently taking or if they are enrolled full time or part time. FTE enrollment looks at the total number of credit hours taken by all students at the institution and then divides it by the standard number of full-time hours taken in a year. For undergraduate programs, including community colleges, this is 30 annual credit hours for schools that operate on a semester system. For the purpose of this analysis, the term enrollment refers to headcount enrollment, which is a better measure of the total number of individuals attending school, unless otherwise specified.

According to NSC headcount enrollment data, both full-time and part-time community college headcount enrollment fell nationally, with full-time enrollment falling by 10.6 percent and part-time enrollment falling by 9.9 percent across public community colleges. Enrollment also fell across all age groups, with the most severe declines among students ages 18 to 24. The least severe declines were in the under 18 age category. Most of these students are dual enrollment students who are also enrolled in high school. According to data from the NSC, national FTE enrollment also declined over this period, but it often declined by less than headcount enrollment. This suggests that some community college enrollees increased course loads during fall 2020.

One of the most striking enrollment patterns in fall 2020 is related to male and minority enrollment. As seen in the chart below, enrollment declines at community colleges were more severe among male students — especially minority male students. In fact, in each case, male enrollment declines were more than double that of female student declines. For example, black male enrollment declined by 19.2 percent while black female enrollment fell by 9 percent. Similarly, Hispanic male enrollment declined by 16.6 percent while female Hispanic enrollment declined by 6.2 percent.

Enrollment Declines in the Fifth District

Enrollment patterns in the Fifth District for fall 2020 appear to have followed national trends. While official IPEDS data are not yet available, and headcount enrollment data are unavailable at the state level via NSC, individual states’ community college systems have released some enrollment numbers. These data show that headcount enrollment at community colleges decreased between fall 2019 and fall 2020 in all Fifth District jurisdictions. The declines ranged from a 4.3 percent decrease in Maryland to a 17.4 percent decrease in West Virginia. North Carolina also saw large losses, with headcount dropping 17.2 percent. 

Due to the level of detail provided by the North Carolina Community College System, school level enrollment can be observed for all 58 community colleges across the state. All 58 schools in North Carolina saw decreased headcount enrollment. The largest declines were in two of the smaller community colleges in the state, Southeastern and McDowell, which saw enrollment declines of 40 percent and 33 percent, respectively, far below the state average decline of 17 percent. Large declines were not limited to smaller schools, however. Durham and Asheville-Buncombe, two of the larger schools in the state, saw declines of 27 percent and 24 percent, respectively. Enrollment declines do not appear to be driven by either school size or geography, with schools in proximity seeing differing enrollment trends. For example, Baltimore City Community College saw enrollment fall nearly 16 percent in fall 2020, far surpassing Maryland’s decline of 4.4 percent. However, nearby, Community College of Baltimore County saw a slight increase in enrollment in fall 2020. Both institutions worked to make college tuition-free for many students and had a mix of online and in-person classes, but the institutions saw very different enrollment patterns.

While size and geography do not seem to be good predictors of fall 2020 enrollment growth, there are Fifth District community colleges that saw positive enrollment trends. Among them is Germanna Community College in Virginia. The relative success at Germanna may have resulted from their push to transition all student services online quickly and their provision of “wraparound” services. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Germanna launched a program offering students help with financial and personal difficulties that could interfere with their ability to attend school. They have also worked to connect students with available government aid and support programs.

Also in Virginia, Dabney S. Lancaster Community College saw an increase in fall 2020 enrollment. Administrators at Dabney S. Lancaster focused on communication with students during the pandemic. They announced their plans for fall 2020 in June, earlier than most, to give students time to prepare. In fall 2020, Dabney S. Lancaster kept the schedule they had originally set before the pandemic but held most classes online and some in a hybrid environment to protect the health of students and promote effective learning. They also offered wraparound services, providing tutoring and advising as well as connecting students to state and national benefits programs.

Overall, Fifth District community colleges saw decreased student headcount in fall 2020, but success stories such as Germanna and Dabney S. Lancaster provide bright spots and possible models for increasing enrollment at other institutions.


Higher education institutions, including community colleges, were hard-hit by COVID-19. Their traditional way of educating students was upended in a way that could never have been predicted, therefore, it is not surprising that enrollments fell. However, given the patterns in prior recessions, the magnitude of the decline was more severe than many expected. Community colleges are working hard to adjust to current market conditions in a way that will result in increased enrollments in fall 2021. While some Fifth District schools have experienced some success in maintaining enrollment during COVID-19, it is not yet clear whether these efforts will be successful at a broader system level.

Full data on fall 2020 enrollment is expected from IPEDS later this summer. At that time, we will publish an additional article that will describe the exact demographic trends observed across Fifth District community colleges during the 2020-2021 school year.

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Views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond or the Federal Reserve System.