Why community colleges shouldn’t bank on a fall enrollment bump—and what to do about it

Expert Insight

Why community colleges shouldn’t bank on a fall enrollment bump—and what to do about it

As unemployment numbers continue to rise and the United States finds itself in the midst of a second major economic downturn in 15 years, community college leaders are all asking a similar question: are we going to experience the same countercyclical enrollment bump as we did during the Great Recession? For many institutions, the answer to this question could spell the difference between financial sustainability and distress. And while it’s impossible to know for certain how things will play out in the Fall and beyond, there are several important reasons why things may be different this time around.

Why this economic downturn is different from the Great Recession

The return to face-to-face instruction is uncertain

Perhaps the most striking difference between higher ed during the Great Recession and higher ed during the COVID-19 outbreak is the uncertainty around face-to-face education. While some institutions have made public statements about their delivery status in the Fall, for many it remains an unknown, which is having a significant impact on prospective student behavior. Parents are expressing skepticism about paying high sticker prices for remote instruction, and prospective students are reporting increased interest in deferring their matriculation until face-to-face instruction is resumed.


Percentage point increase in FAFSA Completion among 18-year-olds during Great Recession
Percentage point increase in FAFSA Completion among 18-year-olds during Great Recession

FAFSA completion is down

Many high school students rely on in-person assistance to complete the FAFSA, and with K-12 schools shuttered across the country, we’ve seen a significant dip in FAFSA completion over the past month, particularly among low-income and first-generation populations. In contrast, FAFSA completion rose steadily among 18-year-olds during the Great Recession (from 36% in 2007 to 42% in 2010). As budgets become increasingly tight, high school students’ lack of awareness of, or access to, critical Pell funding will have a major impact on their ability to attend college in the Fall.

High school dropout rates are almost certain to rise

With schools closed, and access to remote learning consolidated within higher-income districts, the likelihood for dropout among at-risk teens has increased substantially. Teachers in some low-income districts report that fewer than half of their students are logging in to attend remote learning sessions, and education leaders in areas impacted by war and natural disasters caution that adolescents are more likely to bear the trauma of the situation than young children or adults. Many expect high school graduation rates to decline, further shrinking the pool of students likely bound for higher ed.

Little federal push to higher ed

During the Great Recession, higher ed was seen as a “safe haven” of sorts for those who had lost their jobs, and this was emphasized in federal policy. As part of various federal mandates, the maximum Pell Grant award was increased (from $4,850 to $5,350), and the student borrower limit was raised, both effectively encouraging prospective students to pursue higher education. The current federal response, as it relates to higher ed, has focused solely on minimizing the financial impact of the outbreak on current students, and there’s been little indication that that’s likely to change soon.

We haven’t yet hit bottom

During the Great Recession, people didn’t rush to higher ed overnight. Instead, there was about an 18-month lag between widespread job loss and subsequent enrollment in colleges and universities. While it’s unclear whether a similar lag will occur in the wake of COVID-19, the above four factors suggest that a Fall decline in enrollments is not unlikely.

Three things community colleges should do to improve their enrollment outlook

While there are many reasons to believe that Fall enrollment patterns may not mirror those seen during the Great Recession, community colleges are not without recourse. Here are three things community colleges should do right now to improve their enrollment outlook:

1. Invest in regional FAFSA completion

Partner with your local high schools so that all graduating seniors and their parents have access to the support they need to complete the FAFSA. Consider offering virtual completion labs, mailers with detailed instructions and contact info, and Zoom office hours with financial aid staff. Create a one-pager with information about the FAFSA and the opportunities available at your institution that can be distributed to students receiving meals through their high school. Broad messaging, supplemented with targeted support for populations most in need will ensure that students who stand to benefit most from higher education won’t slip through the cracks during this period of disruption.

2. Develop and communicate a value proposition for multiple prospective student markets

Given the important differences between this recession and the last, and the high degree of uncertainty that remains, predicting future enrollments and likely student profiles is a risky bet. Instead, focus on crafting targeted marketing messages that appeal to each potential market: four-year-bound high school students and their parents, recently unemployed gig workers, aspiring healthcare heroes and more. Identify the unique value proposition that your institution holds for each population—whether that be flexible scheduling, or solidified employer partnerships—and frontload that information in your marketing. As all of higher ed has been thrown into a tailspin by the COVID-19, community colleges must be more proactive and precise with their messaging to avoid getting left behind in the race for enrollments.

3. Reshape offerings to meet emerging labor market needs

If there’s an upside to the present uncertainty, from an enrollment management perspective, it’s that there’s a wealth of data being collected and released in an effort to better understand the economic landscape going forward. Especially critical for community colleges is data on the labor market, as unemployed adults traditionally comprise the majority of those who turn to higher ed during an economic recession. As the Bureau of Labor Statistics, EMSI, and others provide regular updates on labor market conditions, make sure that leaders at your institution are keeping abreast of this intel, and incorporating it into programming decisions. Begin planning for how you can sustainability scale programs that are soon to be in high demand (e.g., home health aide, nursing), and engage local employers and faculty in uncovering additional opportunities to create market-informed programming.

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