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Majority of Reported Community College Enrollment Declines Due to Sector Changes

I guess I haven’t finished my IPEDS Fall Enrollment coverage yet.

One of the defining features of US higher education enrollment coverage in the media over the past few years has been the plight of community colleges. During the pandemic, much of the reporting was based on the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) data showing prior year estimates in Fall 2020 that the “undergraduate student numbers are down in all institutional sectors, with the largest drop occurring in community colleges (9.5%)”. That report leads to “Why students are abandoning community colleges in droves” and “Enrollment at US community colleges plummets amid pandemic”, among other headlines. Even pre-pandemic, we had a similar story with “community colleges continued their enrollment slide with a decline of 3.4 percent” based on NSC data from this chart from May, 2019:

It turns out, however, that the majority of reported community college enrollment declines are mislabeled, or at least are based on an artificial category change. Prodded by an astute email observation and suggestion from Jonathan Grudin from Microsoft, I decided to explore the data further. Looking at IPEDS Fall Enrollment data from 2012 through 2019, roughly half of the reported enrollment declines have come from community colleges adding bachelor degree options, changing their names, and reclassifying from public 2-year to public 4-year schools. The same schools, with primarily the same programs and policies, are getting counted in different categories and artificially impacting the reporting on enrollment trends.

Evaluating the Data

All data below come from IPEDS Fall Enrollment tables for US degree-granting institutions but including both degree-seeking and non degree-seeking undergraduate students. To account for subsequent enrollment changes in the years after the switches for the four-year (2015 – 2019) and seven-year (2012 – 2019) calculations, I kept the colleges in question in their original public 2-year category and determined the resultant sector enrollment differences.

Table of contribution of public 2-year enrollment decline in US higher ed due to community colleges switching the public 4-year sector

A direct table to help with copy/paste or with screen readers has been added at the bottom of the post.

78% of the public 2-year enrollment changes from Fall 2015 to 2016 came from the switching of sectors, where colleges with a few added programs suddenly got counted in a different category and the trend accelerated. Since 2015, the contribution of the switching factor each year has ranged from 55% to 81%.

The trend is even more significant looking at data since this acceleration – Fall 2015 through Fall 2019 – when roughly 71% of the enrollment declines in public 2-year sectors can be accounted for by the sector reclassifications.

None of this is to say that there are no enrollment declines for community colleges, it is just that most national analyses ignore this significant factor, leading to erroneous conclusions.

Conflation of Terms

Notice the conflation of community colleges with public 2-year institutions, as that gets to the heart of the matter. The US Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (through IPEDS) as well as the National Student Clearinghouse define the public sectors as public 2-year and public 4-year. There has been a growing trend for community colleges to add bachelor’s degree options, remove the “community” part of their name, and change sectors. If you hover over the question mark by public 2-year in the latest NSC enrollment estimates, you get this message:

Primarily associate degree granting bachelor’s institutions, which are classified as four-year colleges by IPEDS as well as this report, also experienced significant enrollment losses.

The Education Commission of the States put out a policy brief one year ago describing this trend, presenting the arguments for and against these changes.

Nearly half of the states allow community colleges to award bachelor’s degrees as one strategy to meet workforce demands, increase access to educational and career advancement opportunities, address affordability and raise attainment rates.

Emerging research also suggests that community college bachelor’s degrees may play a role in better serving a more diverse student population. Students who enroll in community college bachelor’s programs are typically adult learners who are working and may not be in a position to study full time toward a bachelor’s or transfer to a four-year institution. Further, the programs may address the low rates of underserved students and rural residents with a bachelor’s degree. One report found that about 35% of white adults hold at least a bachelor’s degree, compared with 18% of adults from underrepresented groups. And only 8% of individuals with bachelor’s degrees live in rural counties.

The expanded role of community colleges into the bachelor’s degree arena is not without controversy. Offering bachelor’s degrees is traditionally the domain of four-year institutions, while community colleges were established to award associate degrees and certificates. Concerns center on the historically distinct missions of the different postsecondary sectors, competition with four-year institutions, duplication of programs and quality of the bachelor’s degrees conferred by community colleges, among others.

The postsecondary landscape is changing, however, with respect to who delivers instruction, programs and services to meet the needs of students, states and businesses. Increasingly, higher education is less clearly divided among different types of institutions and providers.

In retrospect, this issue should have been apparent when viewing the IPEDS Fall 2016 data, as there was a notable reduction in public 2-year enrollment of roughly the same size as the increase in public 4-year enrollment.

There are significant differences among the states. In Washington state in 2012, there were 26 public 2-year institutions but in 2019 there were only six. The state has the same set of public institutions with mostly the same missions, but most of the community colleges have reclassified.

Call for Clarity

We do not know yet how significant the sector-switching issue is for the crucial pandemic enrollment estimates, since IPEDS data is current through Fall 2019 and NSC data is not available at the institutional level, but it would help for NSC to break this data out in their reports. Enrollment losses are real and worth considering, but we need the full story.

As described in the Education Commission of the States policy brief, “increasingly, higher education is less clearly divided among different types of institutions and providers.” It would help if future reporting on sector-based enrollment changes stopped conflating community colleges and public 2-year institutions, and it would also help to call out the sizable impact of this sector-switching trend before drawing too many conclusions.

Accessible version of table