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Community College Enrollment in Fall 2021 and Cumulative Enrollment Impacts

Regional Matters


After significant declines in enrollment last year, as discussed in a previous Regional Matters post, community colleges were hopeful that fall 2021 would bring enrollment gains. However, according to recent data from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC), community college enrollment has decreased again this fall, and the cumulative decline since fall 2019 eclipses 14 percent. This decline is extremely concerning to community colleges for multiple reasons. The significant pandemic-related decline follows a downward trend in enrollment at community colleges over the past decade. Since 2011, community college enrollment has fallen almost 30 percent. Funding for community colleges is based on enrollment, so declines in enrollment could potentially lead to reduced funding, contingent on state legislative action. In addition, community colleges are concerned about how these declines impact their ability to provide a qualified, skilled workforce for employers in their communities. Local companies lean heavily on community colleges to train their employees, and community colleges play an important role in recruiting new companies into the region.

National Community College Enrollment in Fall 2021

Until final enrollment figures are released via the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) next year, specific Fifth District enrollment patterns by demographic characteristics and sector remain unknown. However, national data from the NSC, which release data more timely, provide us with some insight into national patterns. While IPEDS contains the full universe of schools, NSC data are limited to a smaller portion of institutions that report data to them. As of October, 35 percent of all public, two-year institutions (community colleges) had reported their fall 2021 enrollment data to NSC.

According to NSC headcount enrollment data, community college enrollment is down 5.6 percent this fall, after declining 9 percent in fall 2020. The cumulative decline, since fall 2019, is 14.1 percent. There are notable headcount enrollment differences by gender and age. In fall 2020, male enrollment at community colleges fell by 14.1 percent while female enrollment fell by just 5.8 percent.  In fall 2021, both continued to decline, but female enrollment fell more than male enrollment (6.8 percent versus 4.7 percent). Still, over the two-year horizon, male enrollment has fallen by a larger percentage than female enrollment, declining 18.1 percent and 12.2 percent, respectively.

Community colleges traditionally have undergraduate students that encompass a broader age range than four-year colleges, including dually enrolled high schoolers and students over age 30. Fall 2021 enrollment declined among all groups at community colleges but significantly less at both the youngest and oldest ends of the spectrum. Enrollment for students under age 18 fell by only 0.2 percent in fall 2021 while enrollment for students 30 and older fell by 1.2 percent. Community college enrollment for ages 18 to 29 fell from between 7.6 percent to 8.1 percent.

Freshmen enrollment at community colleges, defined as students who have not earned previous college credit since graduating high school, has declined even more than overall headcount enrollment, with a one-year decline of 6.1 percent and a cumulative decline of 20.8 percent. NSC also provides freshmen enrollment by race. Black freshmen enrollment has fallen the most sharply, a 33.4 percent cumulative decline, while Asian freshmen enrollment has fallen the least, at 14.2 percent.

Differences Between Urban and Rural Locations

The NSC data also show enrollment patterns based on campus settings. Institutions are classified based on IPEDS and the National Center for Education Statistic’s school locale definitions. The classification results in four categories of campus settings: city, suburban, town, and rural. Fall 2020 declines were fairly consistent across campus settings, ranging from an 8.5 percent decline in community colleges in suburbs and towns and a 9.2 percent decline at community colleges in cities. In fall 2021, enrollment declines at rural schools were less severe than more urban campuses.

Outreach to Fifth District community colleges’ more rural schools have reported that they were able to return to in-person classes more quickly, especially because their students don’t rely as much on public transportation, and their smaller campuses were easier to reopen. The most urban schools in the district have seen larger enrollment declines, not only because of the issues previously mentioned, but also because the COVID-19 mitigation efforts have differed between urban and rural areas. New research indicates that rural residents were significantly less likely to work from home, wear a mask, or participate in other COVID-19 prevention behaviors. Urban schools have often been subject to stricter COVID-19 restrictions, such as mask mandates or school closures. As a result, they have to rely more heavily on online coursework, which is difficult for many classes taught at community colleges.

Enrollment Declines in the Fifth District

Currently, NCS has not released state level community college enrollment data. However, it has released state level data for overall undergraduate enrollment, which includes community colleges and four-year institutions. Nationally, total undergraduate enrollment fell by 3.4 percent in fall 2020 and 3.2 percent in fall 2021, with a cumulative decline of 6.5 percent over the two-year period. Based on available data, undergraduate enrollment in the Fifth District shows largely different patterns than the United States over the past two years. Maryland, for example, while having consistent enrollment declines in fall 2020 and fall 2021, saw more negative rates than the national average. The other Fifth District states saw different patterns, with very little observable consistency. The most extreme example is West Virginia, which saw a 3.3 percent increase in undergraduate enrollment in fall 2020 but saw a large decrease of 10.1 percent this fall. In fact, West Virginia saw the largest decline in the United States in fall 2021.

Some of the enrollment patterns at the state level are following national trends that show fewer low-income students have been enrolling in college during the pandemic. In addition, fewer prospective college students are completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid that is required for students to obtain aid to attend college. NSC data show that the largest enrollment declines are in “less selective” schools, which typically have higher percentages of low-income students, with “highly selective” schools actually seeing enrollment increases in fall 2021.  Some Virginia schools that rely more heavily on low-income student enrollment have reported significant declines. For example, Radford University is down 25 percent, and the University of Virginia’s College at Wise has declined 17 percent over the past two years.  A similar pattern has emerged in South Carolina among the University of South Carolina (USC) campuses. The flagship campus in Columbia has seen a 2.6 percent decline in undergraduate enrollment since fall 2019, while the satellite campuses, which tend to serve larger percentages of students who quality for need-based support, have seen larger declines. Undergraduate enrollment has declined by 8 percent at USC Aiken and 15.2 percent at USC Upstate.

Outreach to Fifth District community colleges indicates that most institutions are seeing flat to declining enrollment this year. This aligns with the overall undergraduate enrollment narrative: Community colleges not only typically serve a larger percentage of low-income students, but also are typically open enrollment, which qualifies as “less selective.”


All sectors of higher education have been impacted by COVID-19, but community college enrollment has been especially hard hit. In addition, due to funding mechanisms for community colleges, these enrollment declines typically result in direct funding cuts. Community colleges have received significant funds from pandemic relief programs via the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan Act, but these are short-term funding streams. The community college sector is in the midst of a long-term enrollment decline that will likely result in future funding issues.

There are also concerns about the students who have chosen not to enroll over the past two years.  Have some entered the workforce instead? Have higher wages increased the opportunity cost associated with attending college? Will they return to school at some point? The demand for mid- to high-skill workers has certainly not waned during the pandemic, so it is critical to many industries to also keep the supply of workers strong.

Outreach to community colleges in the district reports that schools are concerned about these trends. They are working to add new programs to attract students, improving technology to make course offerings more flexible, and refining their recruitment efforts to reach students. We will continue to analyze whether recent enrollment declines are mostly a COVID-19-related phenomenon or indicative of a longer-term issue that will continue to present challenges in the future.

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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.

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