For the past two years, it’s been difficult to focus on anything beyond the immediate consequences of the pandemic. But now as we find ourselves stabilizing, it’s time to pause and take stock of the full landscape facing community colleges. These six trends will have long-term impacts on how community colleges interact with students and getting ahead of them now will position you for success in the future.
6 trends to watch in 2023
1. Increased competition
Community college enrollment is facing several new external threats outside of the traditional competition from other colleges. It’s likely that both your prospective students and current students are weighing the perceived value of your community college against other factors, including:
- Choosing online universities: A national survey conducted in 2022 suggests that the number of high school juniors and seniors planning to attend fully online colleges has more than doubled since before the pandemic.
- Rising wages for young adults: Atlanta Federal Reserve’s Wage Growth Tracker shows that the 12-month moving average of median hourly wage growth stands at 3.8% overall. In 2022, this number jumped up to 10.5% for 16–24-year-olds.
- Alternate learning pathways: Almost half (47%) of 18-30-year-olds who have never attended college, or who have stopped out, say they have taken or are currently taking classes via YouTube, and approximately one-quarter have taken or are currently enrolled in courses to receive a license (25%) or to receive a verified certificate (22%).
- Applying to more colleges: In 2021, the average number of college applications submitted by new college freshmen rose to 7 from 6 applications the year before.
As students cast a wider net when considering their options, it’s critical that community colleges make early, meaningful interactions with students, follow up with inquiries, and create a recruitment communications strategy that will allow them to stand out against the other options the student might be considering.
2. Capitalizing on dual enrollment rebounds
Many community colleges felt some relief in fall 2022 as enrollment declines began to stabilize, and in some cases, improve. After losing over 10% of two-year students during the pandemic, both due to declines in new students and to a national dip in retention, this enrollment recovery was a welcomed reprieve. Nationally, from fall 2021 to fall 2022, two-year colleges only lost .4% enrollment, and these gains were driven completely by the recovery of dual-enrolled high school students (+11.5%) and 18- to 20-year-old students (+1.4%).
Currently, high school students comprise 1 in 5 community college students in the US, with fifteen states attributing 25% or more of their community college enrollment to dual enrollment.
Knowing that dual enrollment is a key component to continuing stabilization efforts, two-year colleges need to double down on both strong high school partnerships and efforts that help retain dual-enrolled students into programs leading to a degree. This is especially important as younger students are reconsidering their pathways after high school, which increasingly may lead them into the workforce or an alternative credential.
3. Increased unmet basic needs & mental health concerns
According to a recent 2022 CCSSE report community college student mental health is worsening, and significant numbers of students are struggling with basic needs like housing and food. Unfortunately, the number of community college students considering stopping college because of mental stress has more than doubled from 24% in 2020 to 63% in 2021.
Contributors to these mental health concerns might be tied, in part, to basic needs stressors. For example, 27% of community college students reported that they have had difficulty paying their rent or mortgage in the past year, and 21% have skipped or reduced meals. It’s easy to understand how these barriers make it impossible for students to start, or finish, their education without deliberate support from student affairs professionals. Thus, community colleges need to invest in basic needs to stabilize enrollment.
Some states, like Washington, California, and Illinois, have implemented policies that require public colleges to assist students with access to basic needs. This could be a trend that continues in other states.
4. Pell Grant availability for incarcerated adults
Starting in July 2023, over 700,000 incarcerated adults will become Pell eligible. Now is the time to proactively plan for what this change in policy could mean for your institution. More than 50% of incarcerated adults attempt to participate in educational opportunities provided through prison resources while incarcerated, and 79% report interest in education programs. This population could represent an untapped channel for colleges who both want to improve their enrollment and provide opportunities to reduce recidivism in their communities.
5. A shrinking talent market
Community colleges have been especially hard hit by the Great Resignation, showing a 13% staff decline from 2020-2022, as a consequence of failed searches, difficulty filling part-time positions, and shortages in student services professionals. These gaps make it difficult to do the work that sustains healthy enrollment, like being able to respond quickly to student questions or offering 1:1 support to your most vulnerable students.
What’s most concerning about the Great Resignation isn’t just a short-term crunch for filling current shortages. By 2028, six million less working aged adults will be in the workforce, causing more competition for talent across all sectors, not just higher education. To prepare, community colleges need to reevaluate how they approach some of the largest reasons why staff are leaving: wages, burnout, flexible work options, and career progression opportunities.
One way to retain your current staff, and stave off disruptions to student services, is to right-size their workload by leveraging technology. This strategy helps reduce the time spent doing manual, repetitive tasks like sending email nudges, scheduling advising appointments, and coordinating early alerts, so your team can spend more time with students.
6. The critical need for first-year momentum
There is encouraging data showing community college six-year completion rates have steadily risen, even as the four-year college sector has seen flattening completion rates. Community colleges have seen a .9% increase in six-year completion rates from the fall 2015 cohort to fall 2016. Even more impressively, going back to the fall 2008 cohort there has been a 4% improvement in completion rates.
While this is worth applauding, it’s also important to look at retention rates to understand trends in students who are still leaving community colleges. Though completion rates have climbed, one-year retention rates have remained relatively flat for the past decade, with a 51.3% rate for students starting in fall 2009, and a 52.4% rate in 2020.
Between 2009 and 2020 one-year retention rates fluctuated between a low of 49.3% for the 2011 cohort, and high of 53.8% in 2018. Compared to completion rates, one-year retention rates have not seen the same steady improvement over time, meaning community colleges are still having significant retention problems for students who are earlier in their programs.
This highlights the importance of fortifying a student’s first year with proactive communication, academic and social supports, and early alerts to make sure they have the momentum to make it through the first year and on to graduation.
Every year seems to bring a new set of challenges or an intensifying of pressures institutions already feel. But new threats to community college enrollment and retention can be manageable with proactive interventions, strong data insights, and a strong value proposition to learners.
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