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Cumulative Effects of IPEDS Sector Changes from Public 2-year to Public 4-year

Last week I updated data showing the significant differences in year-over-year sector enrollment if you took out the artificial Public 2-year to Public 4-year sector changes. But what are the cumulative effects? Do the subsequent enrollment losses for those schools adding bachelor’s degrees cancel out the over effects over time? The short answer is that sector switching in aggregate does not increase enrollments, and the effects are significant despite some offsetting subsequent-year losses.

Let’s focus just on IPEDS data from Fall 2012 through Fall 2020 at the undergraduate level. Schools were switching sectors before 2012, but I’m limiting to the time period when the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) changed its IPEDS Fall enrollment survey to include distance education variables.

Effect of Sector Changes Over Time

To understand the cumulative effects, I think the National Student Clearinghouse’s approach last year makes the most sense. Pick a year and hold the sector contant for all schools. This reverses the year-over-year effects and also shows the subsequent changes for each sector. If you reversed the sector changes in this time period, the Public 2-year enrollments would change by more than 820 thousand, increasing from 4.7 million to 5.5 million. Likewise, the Public 4-year enrollments would change by more than 850 thousand, declining from 7.6 to 6.8 million. The Private 4-year sector enrollments would only change by roughly 20 thousand, and the For-profit 4-year sector enrollments would change by roughly 55 thousand (most of that due to Kaplan University becoming Purdue Global).

US higher ed undergrad enrollment by adjusted sector, fall 2012 - 2020

What becomes obvious from the above chart is that Public 2-year to Public 4-year sector changes is by far a larger factor than any other sector change.

Let’s also look at the percent change over this time period, showing percentage undergrad enrollment differences from Fall 2012 to 2020. If you remove the sector changes in this time period, the Public 4-year sector enrollments would change from a 14% to a 1% increase, essentially becoming flat. Public 2-year sector enrollments would change from a 31% to a 19% decrease. For-profit 4-year sector enrollments would change from a 51% to a 47% decrease.

Different in US higher ed undergrad enrollment from 2012 with adjusted sectors

This data view should change the narrative somewhat about community college enrollments having dropped the most in the past few years, but the story is not as dire as it might seem on initial review of IPEDS data. There is a big difference between a 31% and a 19% decline over eight years.

Sector Changes by Cohort

Institutions have reasons to change sectors, and the biggest one is for community colleges to add bachelor’s degrees to their offerings. The problem I’m describing in these posts is that IPEDS classifies 2-year vs. 4-year sector differences based on the highest degree awarded, whereas the American Association of Community Colleges makes the same distinction that I am making:

For the purpose of this analysis, community colleges are defined as regionally accredited institutions, which primarily award the associate degree as their highest award. As a result of using this definition, community colleges in this report will include colleges that offer a limited number of baccalaureate degrees, such as Miami Dade College in Florida or Bellevue College in Washington. Using this definition also means that community colleges in this analysis will exclude associate degree-granting institutions which do not hold a regional accreditation (such as Reid State Technical College in Alabama which is accredited by the Council on Occupational Education). These data, therefore, will not be consistent with data as generally reported by the U.S. Department of Education’s NCES. NCES generally reports colleges based on the highest degree the institution offers, and does not use regional accreditation as a demarcation for community colleges.

Let’s look at enrollment trends for each cohort of Public 2-year to 4-year switching colleges. Does the addition of bachelor’s degrees and the sector change in aggregate improve enrollment trends? The short answer is no.

Enrollment of Colleges switching public 2-year to 4-year since 2012 by cohort of year switched

The 2016 cohort is the largest one in terms of number of schools and total enrollments, largely driven by California’s approval for its 114 community colleges to make these changes for that year. If you look at each year’s cohort, the only case where enrollments increase is for the 2020 cohort, but that is a data artificact. It turns out that the Dallas Community College District combined its seven schools into one institution, and six of the seven were already classified as Public 4-year. The lone Public 2-year was El Centro College, but that is the institution that became Dallas College, subsuming all other enrollments the same year it switched sectors. This combination and change added 60+ thousand student enrollments to that cohort; if removed, that cohort would have declined over the past year.

Throughout this series of posts, I have described the “artificial” sector changes, meaning that the schools still predominantly offer 2-year degrees. Looking at the cohorts and their awarding of degrees for 2019-20, there is a trend in the ratio of associate’s to total degrees, with the oldest cohort (2013) at 88%. Yes, there are an increasing amount of bachelor’s degrees awarded per cohort, but these are all still predominantly offering 2-year degrees.

Degree awards n 2019-20 for cohorts switching from public 2-year to public 4-year sector


For any policy-maker or college leader or even vendor trying to understand the relative health of public higher education sectors, these data differences matter. As the discussion around free community college moves to the federal level, the topic will become even more important. In an ideal world, NCES would change its IPEDS data classifications to allow more usable data. But in the meantime, we should expect anyone describing community college enrollment declines in particular to include this important context.