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Fall 2020 enrollment: The truth behind early trends in the community college and graduate certificate markets

October 1, 2020

The early results are in for a fall enrollment season like no other. Overall undergraduate enrollments are down 2.5% and graduate enrollments are up 3.8%. In the last recession, we saw all segments grow at least somewhat. This time, the picture is more complicated.

While it’s still too early to make a definitive call on where the market is headed, two initial trends from NSC’s recently-released data stand out: 1) massive disruption to community college enrollments and 2) the seemingly outsized growth of post-baccalaureate certificates. How should these trends influence the way college and university leaders think about their growth potential this year, and for the years to come?

COVID-19 has disproportionately affected community college students and families, causing massive disruption to enrollment

Back in the spring and summer many community colleges and higher ed experts predicted that the economic downturn would result in a countercyclical enrollment boom for two-years. But as summer enrollments started to roll in (or not), it became clear that things were different this time around.

In our own analysis of partner data and local news stories reporting enrollment figures from coast to coast, it’s become clear that a near-perfect storm has formed to batter community college enrollments:

First, the groups that have been most affected by the pandemic—including low-income, and communities of color—represent most students at nearly all community colleges. Bearing a disproportionate health, economic, public safety burden has meant that for many, college had to be put on hold.

Second, in recent years dual enrolled high schoolers were the one student population growing significantly at community colleges. This year that growth slowed dramatically compared to prior years, with only a 2% increase from last year. As K-12 districts struggle with their own educational plans, and students try to recoup learning loss from the spring, dual enrollment programs are on the backburner, throttling what was recently an exploding market.

Finally, a small but not insignificant proportion of recent high school graduates are opting out of higher ed altogether this term, many citing financial concerns or a desire to wait until in-person instruction resumes.

Although some two-year institutions are seeing an increase in traditionally four-year-bound students, who see community colleges as a safer bet, it’s not nearly enough to account for the losses described above.

Shockwaves for years to come across higher ed: Fewer community college students means fewer transfer students

The dire situation that many community colleges face should sound alarm bells for four-year institutions as well. The impact of statewide declines at two-year systems in states like California and New York will be felt on four-year campuses in a matter of months. And while two-year colleges are bearing the brunt right now, the financial, health, and technological barriers—not to mention K-12 learning loss and increased drop-out rates—preventing thousands of students from accessing higher ed set a worrying precedent for the future of higher education and its mission to advance equity and economic mobility.

The post-baccalaureate certificate growth looks bigger than it actually is

It’s true that it looks like post-baccalaureate certificates grew more than everything else this Fall. NSC data show that this market grew by about 24% compared to last fall. And yes, new research has found that adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher are the most likely group to seek further education during the pandemic.

But, and this is a very big caveat, post-bacc certificates are one of the smallest credential markets out there, at least according to the most recent IPEDS data. There just aren’t that many students getting graduate certificates in the first place. In 2019, there were about 51K post-baccalaureate certificate conferrals total, and that number goes up to 73K when you add in post-master’s certificates. That’s a small fraction of the total certificate market, which has just over a million conferrals each year.

Of course, IPEDS reporting for certificates isn’t perfect—there’s plenty of variation in what gets tracked and how, but it’s still hard to ignore just how small the post-baccalaureate certificate market is compared to everything else.

Hype over fast, sustained growth masks the small graduate certificate market size

What’s more, when you look closely at the certificate programs themselves, the median number of conferrals in a graduate certificate program was four. That’s it. And that’s after removing all of the programs with zero conferrals from the analysis.

Launches of new for-credit graduate certificate programs far outpace conferrals. 46% of programs reported zero completions in 2019.
9% annual growth rate, 4% annual conferrals in 2019.

Bottom Line: Double-Digit Enrollment Growth Does Not Automatically Mean Double Digit Enrollments There are many worthy reasons to launch graduate certificate programs—to test an emerging market, fast-cycle program development, create new degree pathways, offer students shorter and less expensive alternatives—and some programs do achieve significant enrollment growth and revenue. In such a small and competitive market, however, strong results are the exception, not the rule. Graduate certificate programs that will be successful will be backed by rigorous competitive intelligence and marketing and recruiting expertise geared to the unique needs of the adult and graduate education market.

What comes next?

Again, we are still looking at preliminary data. The results could shift in the coming weeks. Early data has been concentrated in places hardest hit by summer COVID-19 surges: Florida, Arizona, California, and Texas. Reporting is still sparse from more recovered regions like New York and Washington. The numbers also don’t include enrollment from online giants like SNHU, WGU, Walden and Capella, who stand to benefit from an increasingly online undergraduate market.

That said, early trends can become signals of longer-term market disruption. As the market, and the data, evolves, EAB research will continue to scan the horizon for what our partners should anticipate in the months and years to come.

About Blueprint for Growth:

Blueprint for Growth is EAB’s signature research series about the future of enrollment, both undergraduate and graduate, domestic and international. This series makes bold predictions to shape our partners’ future enrollment strategy, based on cross-cutting and holistic market analysis. This series goes beyond market sizing alone to uncover hidden risks and opportunities and the changing dynamics of competition, all while helping partner institutions anticipate whether and how they should grow.

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