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Community colleges were down before COVID, but the pandemic has rocked them

They just saw an unprecedented double-digit decline

COVID-19’s impact on the community college system is hurting American higher education, data from many different sources show.

The community college system provides several benefits to an individual pursuing higher education. Among the benefits is the affordability of the education provided.

Educationdata.org reports that students spend an average total cost of $25,615 for an academic year at a 4-year public institution in the United States and a total of $53,949 at a traditional private university. In contrast, community colleges have an average annual cost to the student of only $10,300, making them a more affordable alternative to typical 4-year institutions of higher education.

Prior to the arrival of COVID in the US, a good portion of enrolled undergraduate students chose to attend community colleges.

The National Center for Education Statistics states that, in the fall of 2019, there were 5.6 million students who were enrolled at a 2-year academic institution. That amounted to 34 percent of undergraduate students at the time.

Community college’s long decline

The question is not whether COVID-19 has impacted this enrollment but to what degree. COVID decline has to be set against other trends, to figure that out. And things have not been trending in community colleges’ favor.

Since 2009, there was already a trend of community college enrollment steadily declining. Between 2009 to 2019, enrollment at 2-year institutions dropped from 7.5 million to 5.6 million students, a 26 percent decrease, according to NCES data. In contrast, four-year institutions during the same time span saw a positive 10 percent increase in enrollment from 9.9 million students to 11 million students.

However, the decline in community college enrollment got steeper after the arrival of COVID.

In a report released in the fall of 2021, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center showed community college enrollment numbers had decreased from 2019 to 2020 by an alarming 9.5 percent from the previous year.

The enrollment numbers of community colleges have suffered a never before seen double-digit decrease of 11.3 percent from the previous year in the Spring of 2021, a report for Clearinghouse shows.

What’s driving the decline?

The decline in enrollment at community colleges may be due to the economic impact of COVID on the students, since about 80 percent of students work (39 percent full time) and have low income families. About 23 percent of dependent students and 47 percent of independent students at community college have family incomes under $20,000, reports the Community College Research Center.

Further factors may include that only 2 percent of the students receive Federal Work Study aid, which allows students to treat studying like a job. And jobs are down as well. Unemployment has increased in the United States from a pre-pandemic 3.7 percent to 8.1 percent in 2020 and now 6.7 percent, putting community college financially out of reach to many.

MORE: Jill Biden paid $80K+ for her fulltime professor job at community college

IMAGE: Rommel_Canlas.shutterstock

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About the Author
College Fix contributor Caleb Rider is a student at Franciscan University of Steubenville majoring in philosophy and theology with a minor in business management. He is a part of the university's Honors program and Center for Leadership.