Navigating Recovery: Community College Enrollment Trends and Challenges


Postsecondary enrollment has struggled to recover to pre-pandemic levels, significantly impacting community colleges, which saw a steep decline of over 772,592 students—a 16% drop in enrollment from fall 2019 to fall 2022. This decline underscores the impact economic fluctuations can have on our students, many of whom are juggling work, family obligations, and academic pursuits. Community college students are typically non-traditional learners, with an average age of 27. Approximately 43% of full-time community college students are employed full-time, and over a third are first-generation college students. 

Despite these challenges, community college enrollment saw an increase in fall 2023 as students returned to classrooms, marking the first growth in undergraduate enrollment since the pandemic began. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported that community colleges drove 60% of the overall enrollment increase. Notably, enrollment among Black, Latine, and Asian students rose by 4%. Short-term credentials also gained popularity, with a 9.9% rise compared to a 3.6% increase in associate degrees. 

This positive momentum continued into spring 2024, where community colleges led an overall increase in undergraduate enrollment, contributing 55.7% of the gains. However, community college enrollment remains 12.4% lower than spring 2020 levels, highlighting the ongoing recovery challenges our institutions face. 

Impact of Better FAFSA 

The turbulent rollout of the Better FAFSA has raised concerns for colleges nationwide. According to a recent report from NCAN, FAFSA completion among graduating seniors declined by 11.6% compared to this time last year. This decline underscores the challenges students are currently facing while attempting to navigate the federal financial aid process. 

While this data specifically focuses on graduating seniors and does not capture returning students or adult learners, FAFSA completion rates are typically strong indicators of overall enrollment trends. For instance, during the significant declines in community college enrollment from 2019 to 2021, FAFSA completion dropped by 3.9%. Uncertainty with financial aid could potentially deter students from pursuing or returning to postsecondary education altogether. 

Community colleges maintain a slight advantage due to their flexibility, allowing students to fill out their FAFSA and enroll close to the start of classes. Students impacted by FAFSA challenges may opt for community colleges, which offer more affordable, high-quality alternatives to traditional four-year institutions. 

While we cannot turn back the clock to undo the damage caused by FAFSA delays this cycle, community college leaders, government officials, elected representatives, and other stakeholders should continue supporting students navigating these challenges. Students who may be on the fence about starting or continuing their postsecondary journeys would greatly benefit from the value and flexibility that community colleges can provide during this uncertain time in the financial aid space. We should also focus our advocacy efforts on ensuring FAFSA is back to its October 1 launch date with minimal challenges for students and families to mitigate future enrollment challenges. 

Rosario Durán is the Senior Government Relations Associate at ACCT.

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