Community college enrollment has plunged since 2010 despite affordability

Apr 5, 2023, 12:21 PM | Updated: 12:49 pm


The number of students at community colleges has fallen 37% since 2010, approximately a drop of 2.6 million in enrollment, according to The Seattle Times. (Photo courtesy of North Seattle Community College)

(Photo courtesy of North Seattle Community College)

The number of students at community colleges has fallen 37% since 2010, approximately a drop of 2.6 million in enrollment, according to The Seattle Times, even though community colleges are a far cheaper option than four-year schools.

Published tuition and fees last year averaged $3,860 compared to the $39,400 average at private institutions or the $10,940 average at public four-year universities.

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“Life gets in the way,” said Gee Scott, co-host of The Gee and Ursula Show. “I think that today, it is harder than it was 20, 30 years ago. And the reason why that is, is because of all of the topics we talk about on a daily basis, which is housing affordability, wages, etc. So you can say, ‘I’m going to go ahead and go to community college by day and then get that part-time job at night.’ Well, we all know that a part-time job is not enough for you to be able to pay for a place by yourself, so you’re going to have to depend either on living with your parents or living with roommates.”

The younger the student, the less severe the drop in enrollment is at the community college level, according to National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) data. Students 17 years old or younger had an increase of more than 10% as dual enrollment (high school and community college classes) continues to develop as a more feasible option.

Students over the age of 25 faced double-digit percentage drops in four-year colleges and a 17.2% drop in community colleges over the last two years.

“It is easier to stay connected with school, in my opinion, when you are away [from home],” Gee continued.

The decline in enrollment occurred exponentially during the pandemic, with community colleges witnessing a 10% drop in 2021 compared to the previous year, according to the NSC report. The same can not be said for four-year colleges, which only saw a 1% drop overall during that same period.

According to the same data models, Black, Hispanic, and Native American first-year students showed even steeper drops, between 28 and 29%.

“Two-year community colleges have the worst completion rates of any kind of universities and colleges, only slightly more than 40% finish within six years, and nearly half of the students drop out within a year,” said Ursula Reutin, co-host of The Gee and Ursula Show, in response to the report. “This idea that community college is supposed to help make that transition to a four-year college easier, but in many cases, students say they aren’t meeting up with an advisor. I think it’s just too hard in many cases to get a hold of an advisor. Advisors today, whether it’s in high school or college, are taking care of too many students.”

But community colleges are attempting to bounce back post-pandemic, as the same report acknowledged an approximate 6% jump in new first-year students enrolling at community colleges nationwide, the first time enrollment has increased in nearly a decade despite the numbers still being well below pre-pandemic enrollment rates.

Part of the slight enrollment increase is the consistent growth in high school students enrolling in community college courses.

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“I have been to community college three times. And to be clear, community college got me here to where I am in this job because I got an internship through being in community college. It wouldn’t have been possible without that,” said Andrew “Chef” Lanier, the show’s producer. “However, how many adults can afford to take a two-year pause on their life and the financial hit in order to earn an accreditation that they should be able to transfer into directly?”

One section of post-high school education that has steadily risen is career training degrees and certification, as both undergraduate and graduate students saw a 5.5% and 4.6% increase in certificates, respectively.


Listen to Gee Scott and Ursula Reutin weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Newsradio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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Community college enrollment has plunged since 2010 despite affordability