Beginning in March 2020, the coronavirus pandemic closed college campuses and squeezed families' finances. Many experts predicted that because of these pressures, students might opt to ride out the pandemic by taking community college courses to save money and stay closer to home.
But then, the opposite happened.
According to a new report from the College Board, community colleges actually saw the largest dip in enrollment during the fall of 2020. Researchers estimate that while enrollment at private and public four-year schools dipped by 4.5% and 2.8%, respectively, community college enrollment dropped by nearly 12%.
The decline in community college enrollment bucks a persistent trend, says Jessica Howell, vice president of research for the College Board and one of the authors of the report.
"There is a long-standing countercyclical relationship between college enrollment and economic conditions, where college enrollment normally increases during recessions. Historically, this has been particularly true at community colleges. They offer so much flexibility, and a wide array of affordable programmatic offerings, and in poor economic conditions students often flock back to the community colleges," says Howell. "And that is absolutely not what we see today. We see enrollment rate declines across the board in community colleges in essentially every region of the country."
She adds, "It's not abundantly clear to us why that is."
According to the report, community college enrollment rates decreased the most among first-generation students, Black students, Native American students and Hispanic students.
"It is possible that among the students who didn't enroll in community colleges and that would have if not for the pandemic, that a big chunk of them will not get back onto a trajectory toward investing in college and that is scary," says Howell, fearing that some traditionally underserved students may miss out on the chance to pursue a college degree.
Another hypothesis for why community college enrollment has dipped so much is that some students who would have gone to community colleges got into traditional four-year schools.
"Some of those students may have gotten off a waitlist at their local, regional public four-year college," she says.
One of the major findings of the College Board's report is that four-year college enrollment rates declined the most among students with better grades, while two-year college enrollment rates declined the most among students with lower grades.
"Students with higher high school GPAs, the A and A+ students, generally had the biggest enrollment rate declines in the four-year sector. Perhaps they are gap year and deferral students," says Howell. "But in those same colleges, we simultaneously see increases among students with high school GPAs in the B, B- and lower range."
She continues, "Colleges were almost certainly responding to the early days of the pandemic by either admitting deeper into the high school GPA distribution or admitting deeper into their waitlist. And it will be very interesting to think about the opportunity afforded to those B and B- students who may have gotten into four-year colleges that they wouldn't have otherwise, save for the pandemic."
When asked if college was easier to get into for the fall of 2020, Howell quickly responds.
"Certainly looks like it."