US community colleges regain enrolment

Covid recovery at two-year campuses tied to gains among older students and high school dual programmes, but challenges still await

三月 29, 2023
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Enrolment is starting to rebound at US community colleges, three years after sharp declines at the two-year institutions attributed to students facing exceptionally large economic and personal setbacks because of Covid.

Preliminary estimates suggest that community college enrolment rose by a little more than 2 per cent in the current spring semester, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Centre.

The gains appeared especially pronounced among older first-time students and high school students in dual enrolment programmes, said Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Centre, a non-profit organisation that collects and analyses data on behalf of US colleges and universities.

Community college enrolment, however, is still down by 14 per cent from pre-pandemic levels, Dr Shapiro said. “So still a long way to go, but clearly a nice sign of improvement in community colleges this term,“ he said.

The Clearinghouse data matches other signs that students considering community colleges – often those seeking hands-on job-centred instruction in skills that don’t translate well to online formats – are feeling physically and economically safe enough to return, said Thomas Brock, director of the Community College Research Centre, based at Columbia University.

“It appears that we have hit bottom” for the two-year sector, Dr Brock said. “I think we do see light ahead.”

Computer science training looks especially strong as pandemic-related concerns ease for the sector’s financially vulnerable students, said David Baime, senior vice-president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges, the two-year sector’s main advocacy group.

“It is particularly heartening to see an increase in students attending college for the first time, as this population was especially negatively impacted by Covid,” Mr Baime said.

The Clearinghouse data comes with caveats. Its estimate is an initial assessment based on data from about half of US institutions, and attendance shifts are generally much smaller in the spring semester than the autumn.

The other large gain in the preliminary spring semester estimates appeared in the four-year for-profit sector, where enrolment rose 2.2 per cent, according to the Clearinghouse data.

For undergraduates across all US post-secondary institutions, the centre found an enrolment increase of only 0.2 per cent. “So basically a stabilisation” for US higher education, Dr Shapiro said, after a decline last spring of 2.2 per cent.

The community college gains, however, are an important sign for all institutions, Dr Brock said, given that many students at the two-year colleges later transfer to four-year campuses. “I think everyone can take heart from these numbers,” he said.

At the same time, Dr Brock described the nation’s nearly 1,200 two-year institutions as facing enduring challenges that appear far from resolved. It has grown clear that students at community colleges do not perform as well as those at four-year institutions, he said, and that is true even when the data is adjusted to reflect differences in student preparation and to credit those who eventually obtain a four-year degree.

Chief problems for community colleges, Dr Brock said, include their smaller proportion of public funding, and their tendency to offer a menu of courses without the personal advice and assistance that lower-income students need to succeed.

“There are just structural flaws – what we have termed the cafeteria model, where students at community colleges are given lots of options, but not a lot of guidance and support,” he said. “That sometimes leads to poor choices for students.”

And with population growth reversing across much of the US, Dr Brock noted, all institutions are fighting even harder for students. Community colleges are hurt in that competition, he said, by web-based services that make clear to prospective students the better outcomes that usually await them in a four-year setting.

Community colleges are working hard to fix those shortcomings, Dr Brock said, and they’ll likely struggle for enrolment until they do so. “The value proposition is not always there for community colleges,” he acknowledged. “It’s not unreasonable for students to opt for the four-year route if that’s open to them.”



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