Why are community colleges taking a hit?

During a recession, community college enrolment numbers typically go up – but this is no ordinary recession and no average year. Discover more here.

Clock 3 min read Calendar Published: 18 Nov 2020
Author Abby Driver
Why are community colleges taking a hit?

During a recession, community college enrolment numbers typically go up – but this is no ordinary recession and no average year.

Recent figures released by the National Student Clearing House show that Community College enrollment has collapsed, with a 7.5% drop when compared to 2019.

As the numbers of students enrolling at community colleges crumble, higher education administrators, facilitators and faculty members are asking: just why are community colleges taking a hit?

Number crunching

The fall in undergraduate college enrollment could be attributed to the reluctance of international students to travel for their education. But the reasons why community college admissions have dropped is much more complicated.

As COVID-19 cases continue to rise, there is justifiable fear among students about the threat to personal health. Some students, particularly those with existing conditions, may be fearful of the risks of attending college, and instead, choose to delay.

Many community college students also come from homes that have been hardest hit by the recession. Investing in a community college education may be a risk they don’t want, or are unable, to take. Coupled with the uncertain impact coronavirus will have on the economy, it’s natural that they would be cautious.

But delaying college enrollment isn’t risk-free. Research from 2005 found that those who delay education are 18% less likely than their peers, who enrolled directly, to complete any college at all.

And the worst part is, that minority groups, those on lower incomes and those with disabilities - who are already disproportionately suffering from the impact of COVID-19 - are most likely to put their education on the backburner. The impact on these students’ lives, and their futures, could be profound.


The shift toward a blended-learning model, where classes are delivered primarily online, could prove a significant reason why some students are choosing not to apply to college this year.

Evidence is slowly emerging of the impact of coronavirus on the student experience, and it doesn’t paint a pretty picture. What is clear is that those who are most likely to suffer are college students with physical, learning, neurodevelopmental, and cognitive disabilities, a recent study has found.

Students with disabilities felt that their institutions aren’t doing enough to support them. Less than two-thirds of students with disabilities felt supported by their institution.

Further, just 60% of students with a disability feel like they belong at their institution, compared to 87% of students without a disability.

The impact of the pandemic on students’ physical and emotional wellbeing can’t be overstated. It can also provide us with clues as to why so many students are choosing not to apply this year. It’s clear that, while online tuition may work for some college students, it must be improved to deliver outcomes that benefit all.

In some cases, the reasons for delayed applications are more practical. Students may not have the technology or stable internet connection required to access or take part in courses delivered online. Again, this weight is likely to be felt most by those who can afford it least. The same study found that a staggering 63% of students with disabilities experienced unexpected increases in the cost of technology, compared to just 17% of students without disabilities.

Beyond the classroom

Students at community colleges often have to grapple with non-educational commitments and responsibilities. Some may be young parents, others may care for a family member, or be in receipt of daily care themselves.

Then there’s the working population of students at comm colleges. According to this report from Diverse Education, a majority of enrolled students at community colleges also worked in Fall 2019.

When these responsibilities and commitments intersect, it’s easy to see how learning could be sacrificed.

Unfortunately, community colleges are often not in the financial position to offer needed services. Take child care, for example.

Fresno State, part of CSU, saw a record enrollment increase of 5% this year. A report from EdSource partly attributes this to its free childcare program offered to Pell Grant students, who themselves comprise 53% of the student body.

Decreased enrollment only makes it harder for community colleges to offer an extensive support package to students.

Agency and control

It’s impossible for community colleges to tackle all the systemic issues students might face, such as funding and health worries. In time, these will - we all hope - disappear.

We must recognise that online learning approaches, where digital comes first, may not suit all types of learners. The low self-esteem many disabled students and those from marginalised groups can experience from an arms-length approach to learning may put yet another roadblock in the way of their education. It’s our job to remove it.

Individuals and institutions must promote community colleges as attractive, rewarding and inclusive places for students. At the heart of this is embracing new technologies.

Accommodations such as Glean can help students with disabilities get the most from recorded classes. The interactive platform transforms passive learning into an active experience and is based around their needs.

It’s one of a range of adaptive technologies that can give students from all backgrounds greater control and agency over their learning. It’s about finding new ways to provide the traditional benefits of a community college education in new ways to those people who will benefit from it most.

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