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Job Focused Community College Programs Grow — But Grim Transfer Trend Continues

Despite community college growth in fall 2023, experts say there’s a ‘troubling’ decline of students transferring to four-year schools.

Eamonn Fitzmaurice/Maybach Media

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A new report has found community college enrollment grew nationwide — but few students are transferring to four-year institutions as their interest in immediate employability rises.

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found community colleges led overall undergraduate enrollment growth in the fall of 2023 by 2.6 percent, or 118,000 students, compared to the previous year.

Community college gains were carried by those with a vocational program focus — pointing to students’ growing disdain for working towards a four-year degree.

“We have shortages in a lot of jobs that require bachelor’s degrees,” said Josh Wyner, founder and executive director of the Aspen Institute College Excellence Program, including well-paying careers in nursing, teaching and software engineering that pay north of $50,000 annually.

“So when we see students entering community college not in those liberal arts programs that lead to bachelor’s degrees, it’s troubling,” Wyner said, adding that a vocational degree won’t provide the long-term financial payoff that would more likely come from a four-year education.

Career-Driven Programs Lead Enrollment Growth

Community colleges with a vocational program focus grew 16 percent in the fall of 2023 compared to the previous year’s 3 percent gain — bringing them above their pre-pandemic enrollment by nearly 30,000 students.

But, transfer-focused community colleges only grew slightly by 0.2 percent in the fall of 2023 compared to the previous year’s 1.1 percent drop — continuing their pre-pandemic enrollment decline by more than 500,000 students.

“There’s fewer community college students entering a transfer pipeline that we can’t afford to lose,” said John Fink, a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center.

This trend comes as community colleges remain in a “very deep hole” because their uptick in enrollment doesn’t come close to pre-pandemic numbers, he added.

The report found community college growth in the fall of 2023 brings current enrollment to about 4.5 million students.

Popular programs include computer science, business and health that grew by 9.1, 3.5 and 2.4 percent respectively.

But, there were more than 5.2 million students enrolled pre-pandemic — leaving community colleges with a net loss of nearly 700,000 students.

“Community college growth is certainly an encouraging sign, but there's still a long way to go to get back to where we were,” said Jeremy Cohen, a research associate at the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Despite the growing number of companies no longer requiring job applicants to have a four-year degree, their hiring behavior hasn’t changed, Wyner said.

“The majority of good jobs in our country are populated by workers that have a bachelor's or greater,” Wyner said. “So if students aren't enrolling in community college programs that align with attaining a bachelor's, we're going to really struggle filling job vacancies in the future.”

Wyner said the main factor community college-goers rely on to decide whether a four-year degree is worth pursuing is “word-of-mouth” experiences from current students.

“If a student leaves [a four-year] college without a degree or with a degree that didn’t give them a better life than they would have had if they never attended, they’re going to go back to their communities and when people ask if it was worth it their answer is going to be no,” Wyner said.

“So the decisions we’re seeing them make may be entirely rational because the educational system keeps failing far too many of them,” he added.

Transfer Student Declines Impact Four-Year Schools

This trend has implications for four-year institutions that rely on transfer students as part of their enrollment strategy, Fink said.

“It might seem like this is a community college issue, but that's going to translate in years forward to many four-year institutions,” Fink said.

Wyner added how leaders at four-year institutions need to play their part in correcting community college enrollment declines.

“Instead of lamenting the fact that student enrollment in community colleges has come down, four-year schools need to lean in and do something about it,” Wyner said, such as emulating Northern Virginia Community College’s ADVANCE Program that provides dual enrollment and guaranteed admission at George Mason University.

He said their program transfers more than 4,000 students every year to George Mason University and has a graduation rate of over 70 percent — higher than the national undergraduate average of 62.2 percent.

“If you create really strong pathways for students, they'll come back to community colleges,” Wyner said.

This article is part of a series in partnership with reporter Joshua Bay’s Poynter-Koch Media and Journalism Fellowship highlighting the struggles of community college students.

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