The Decline of the Public 2-Year Degree

NPR had an interesting story this week showing the increase in enrollments for skilled trade programs in community colleges.

More than a million students held off from going to college in this pandemic, but there are some bright spots happening at community colleges. Some programs in skilled trades like construction, HVAC and automotive repair are seeing an uptick in enrollment. In some places, it’s as high as 40% more.

How does this trend look in a more general sense, by comparing degree program enrollments vs. non-degree program enrollments at public 2-year institutions? The most recent enrollment data come from the National Student Clearinghouse for the Fall 2021 term. The difference between the Public 2-year enrollment changes in associate degree programs and other undergraduate programs is stark, with the former dropping 5.5% while the latter gaining an average of 4.3% (see the last two rows). Note that NSC defines other undergraduate as “Undergraduate certificate/diploma, teacher preparation and special non-credential programs that have been classified by institutions as undergraduate programs, as well as enrollments that are not part of any structured program.”

NSC enrollment changes for Fall 2020 and 2021, by sector

To get a historical perspective, I combined IPEDS fall enrollment from 2012 through 2020 and then extrapolated based on the National Student Clearinghouse data. Note that IPEDS defines the categories differently, combining degree- and certificate-seeking student enrollments, with high school dual enrollments as part of the non degree- or certificate-seeking category. The point of my post is the decline of the 2-year degree from community colleges, so the combination of IPEDS and NSC is not an exact science but helps to visualize the decline.

The trend is quite clear in this broader view, in that virtually all of the enrollment declines within the Public 2-Year sector come from degree-seeking student enrollments, dropping 27% in the 9-year period from 6.06 to 4.38 million. Certificate and other non-degree enrollments have grown in that same period, by 16% from 1.21 to 1.40 million. And as NPR describes, there are likely even larger enrollment gains in the skilled trades.

US community college enrollment by credential type (degree vs. non-degree) for 2012 through 2021

To accomodate the issue of community colleges changing sector from Public 2-year to Public 4-year by adding bachelor degrees, I am filtering to those schools defined as community colleges by the Community College Research Center.

I don’t think you can put this genie back in the bottle. Rather, schools should understand the underlying shifts and plan accordingly. Of course community colleges should continue to support associate degree programs (hence the title usage of decline and not decline and fall), in innovative ways, but the trend towards a greater percentage of students looking for alternative credentials – or even no credentials – in non-degree programs is one that can’t be ignored.

Update 3/26: I have updated the chart to use CCRC definitions of community colleges to remove ambiguity from sector changes, and I have clarified the category definitions for both the National Student Clearinghouse and IPEDS.