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NCES Overstates the Community College Year-Over-Year Enrollment Declines in IPEDS Data

With the new IPEDS data for US Higher Education in Fall 2020, one of the big takeaways is confirmation that the Public 2-year sector suffered more than any other. That conclusion is overstated, however, due to the growing trend of Public-2-year colleges reclassifying as Public 4-year and due to the conflation of terms Community Colleges and Public 2-year Colleges. The US Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES, the group that publishes the IPEDS data) as well as the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) 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.

This lack of context is shared by even the Commissioner of NCES:

The largest decline in enrollment was among public 2-year institutions, which saw 703,168 fewer students enrolled in fall 2020 compared to fall 2019, a change of 15 percent.

However, enrollment increased for some institutions. Enrollment at public 4-year institutions increased by 61,624 students (a change of less than 1 percent). And enrollment at for-profit institutions increased at both 2- and 4-year institutions, with 22,069 more students (11 percent), at the 2-year level.

“The decrease in enrollment for two-year public institutions is concerning,” said NCES Commissioner Peggy G. Carr. “These are often two-year public institutions that serve as gateways to 4-year institutions and as centers providing workforce training vital to adults of all ages.”

In March I shared data showing just how much the sector change issue affected enrollment reporting for public 2-year institutions (accounting for 55% – 81% of the year-over-year declines over the past several years) but noted that we did not yet have data from academic terms within the pandemic. In other words, from 2015 – 2019 community colleges did lose students, but the majority of Public 2-year enrollment declines reported by IPEDS actually came from sector switching, and seldom was this important context included in the reports.

New Data for Fall 2020

With last week’s release of IPEDS data for Fall 2020, we now have this missing data: the sector change issue accounted for 29% of the year-over-year losses reported for the Public 2-year sector. 1

Note: There are multiple ways to filter and select data. For this set (as with previous analyses for consistency’s sake), I have limited to U.S. degree-granting institutions. For undergraduate totals I have included degree-seeking and non-degree-seeking students (degree-granting institutions can offer non-degree programs). This will give different totals than the NCES press release linked and quoted above. That description includes non degree-granting institutions, leading to slightly higher numbers than shown below.

Contribution to public 2-year year-over-year enrollment declines from sector changes, Fall 2013 - 2020

This year 201 thousand of the 691 thousand enrollment decline from Fall 2019-2020 came from sector changes.

It is worth noting that this issue mostly explains why IPEDS shows a 15% drop in public 2-year enrollment for that time period while the National Student Clearinghouse reported a 9.4% decline, since NSC deliberately held the sector constant to remove this effect. Looking at all students (degree and non-degree seeking) at degree-granting institutions, by adjusting the IPEDS data you get a 9.1% enrollment decline.

The 201 thousand enrollments artificially attributed to the Public 2-year sector also means that the enrollment increases for the Public 4-year sector are artificial. NCES reported an increase of nearly 62 thousand, but if you ignore the institutions that reclassified to Public 4-year for Fall 2020 that means there was actually an enrollment decline of roughly 141 thousand, or 1.5%, which aligns with NSC’s reported 1.4% decline.

Comparing NSC and IPEDS enrollment reporting for Fall 2019-2020

Trend Lines

While the relative importance of this sector-changing issue, compared to overall enrollment, declined during the pandemic to 29%, the trend is not going away. Looking at the number of institutions changing from Public 2-year to Public 4-year as well as their aggregate enrollment for the year they changed, we see a spike in 2015-16 and then a general increase in the total number of student enrollments.

Number of institutions and Fall year-over-year enrollment changes due to Public 2-year to Public 4-year sector changes, 2013 - 2020

The enrollment declines for the Public 2-year sector are very concerning and should not be ignored. But we need context and accurate reporting to help describe the real scale of the problem.

Fall 2020 data show the year-over-year enrollment decline was just over 9% for the schools classified as Public 2-year in Fall 2019.

1 Note data revisions for previous years due to adjustment in analysis methodology. In March 2021 analysis I added back in the previous year’s enrollment for sector-changing institutions, when I should have added back in the new year’s enrollment. This issue has been corrected in the current spreadsheet.