Since the pandemic, community college enrollment nationally has declined more than 13%. Last fall, despite the Covid-19 vaccines, community college enrollment dropped 3.4%, part of a national dip in undergraduate enrollment over the last year, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Community college enrollment nationally has been slipping each of the past five years, with the biggest dip in the fall of 2020 – a 10.1% decline.

College enrollment at all colleges – public, private, 2-year and 4-year – fell by about 3% last year, but the sharper declines at 2-year colleges suggest more low-income, first-generation students who typically attend community college are at greater risk of having their higher education goals deferred indefinitely.

In Connecticut, community college enrollment has dropped at a greater rate than the national average. In the fall of 2021, enrollment at the state’s community colleges declined by 4.7%, for a total enrollment of 36,238, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. In the fall of 2020, enrollment plunged by 15.3%, with enrollment at 38,032.

The dip in community colleges enrollment “is the continuation of a trend that has been on-going since probably 2017-2018 when enrollments in community colleges peaked,” says Sara Vincent, interim regional director of recruitment, admissions and community outreach, Capital-East Region, Connecticut Community Colleges. “There is a nationwide decline of traditional high-school aged students.  That, coupled with the pandemic, a relatively low unemployment number – community college enrollments tend to ebb and flow with unemployment trends – and competing priorities of home and work life, have all contributed to the enrollment decline in different ways.”

The biggest barriers to starting and persisting in community college are the cost of college and the demands of home life and work, she says. In addition, during the pandemic, students’ lack of access to Wi-Fi and laptops presented an added challenge for many; some of those with the technology struggled to succeed with online coursework, she says.

Community colleges are typically the least expensive college option, but during the pandemic, many students have had to work to support their families and/or provide childcare, so they’ve had to postpone college. Some students’ parents lost their jobs or had health conditions that made working on the front lines extremely risky so students took full-time jobs rather than start college. Others stepped in to help care for nieces and nephews whose day care centers had closed or who needed supervision for doing school from home while their parents worked.

Community colleges have tried to provide multiple supports to help students attend college and succeed, in spite of these barriers, Vincent says. Students who take a minimum of 6 credits are eligible for financial aid so they can attend part time.

“There is also a more focused approach on holistic student support models and providing more embedded support in the services that students are receiving at the community college level,” she says.  The new Guided Pathways Advising model and the Holistic Case Management approach that were adopted by the system office are two big changes that address this, she says. 

This is why Achieve Hartford is so grateful for the support from our funders that allows us to provide peer mentors to guide community college students from underserved communities, says Paul Diego Holzer, executive director. “Students who are low-income and first-generation tend to begin their college education at community colleges, and the fact that enrollment at these colleges has dropped even more than at four-year colleges may delay or defer a whole generation’s chance to attain higher education and the financial opportunities an education affords.”