Recent reports have brought to national attention what many in higher education have been concerned about since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic: we are experiencing a higher education enrollment crisis in the United States.
Based on a new report from the National Student Clearinghouse, nearly 1 million fewer students were enrolled in college in the United States last fall compared to the number enrolled before the pandemic began in early 2020.
In California alone, the number of students enrolled in college has dropped by about 250,000 over that same period of time. The state of California and public community colleges have been particularly hard-hit, but the enrollment decline is impacting the entire nation and all sectors of higher education, with public four-year universities experiencing a 3 percent decline from fall 2020 to fall 2021 (compared to a 3.4 percent decline among public two-year colleges during that time).
While the significant drop in enrollment over such a short period of time presents major concerns for many colleges and universities, it is not only the institutions themselves that stand to suffer the negative consequences. Our economy—indeed, entire communities—depend on a steady pipeline of college graduates in order to remain vibrant and robust.
Even before the pandemic, we were facing an employment skills gap in the United States that threatened to derail the economy with millions of jobs at risk of being unfilled by 2030 and an anticipated shortfall of more than 1.5 million skilled workers in California alone. In recent years, community colleges have made a concerted effort to close that gap, but declining enrollment at community colleges could mean those hard-earned gains may be short-lived.
Additionally, the challenges that existed before the pandemic that disproportionately impacted low-income students, first-generation students, and students of color have only been exacerbated. When fewer members of any group—a household, a neighborhood, a state or a country—attend and graduate from college, fewer people have the skills and credentials necessary to fill the open positions in our workforce, and that impacts our entire society.
We have decades of research that shows income is directly tied to education. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, median earnings increase with every step of educational attainment, from those with less than a high school diploma to doctoral degree earners. In addition to the economic benefits, studies show that individuals who earn college degrees experience a number of social benefits as well, including lower rates of incarceration, a decreased likelihood of experiencing food or housing insecurity and better health outcomes, among others.
Communities where individuals with higher levels of educational attainment cluster tend to see these benefits on a larger scale than communities where higher education is not as accessible.
Fortunately, despite the bad news regarding college enrollment, there is good news to be found as well. A National Student Clearinghouse analysis of more than 12 million undergraduate students, including 1.3 million transfer students, found that transfer enrollment stabilized in fall 2021 after dropping significantly the year prior.
The same analysis found that transfers were up among young students (aged 18-20) and among students who continued their education during the pandemic and did not stop out at any time between spring term 2020 and fall 2021.
Community colleges in particular are very adept at building and promoting programs and initiatives designed to quickly meet the needs of students and employers, and across the country college leaders are already working to address the enrollment decline. Here in San Jose, a new program being offered at both San Jose City College (SJCC) and Evergreen Valley College (EVC) for spring 2022 is making classes available free of charge to any California resident taking at least six credits.
Making free college available to anyone taking at least six credits is a key difference between this and most other free community college programs, many of which are available only to students who attend classes full time. The full-time requirement, however, leaves out large swaths of students, as national statistics show that approximately 65 percent of community college students attend part time. At SJCC and EVC that number is even higher, with about 75 percent of students attending part time while managing other responsibilities like work and caring for family members.
Like most community colleges during the pandemic, EVC and SJCC have seen their enrollment decline since fall semester 2019. This free college program is one of many steps being taken to grow enrollment and ensure that everyone who wishes to pursue an education has the opportunity to do so without cost serving as a barrier to enrollment.
San José Spotlight columnist Raúl Rodríguez is Interim Chancellor of San Jose-Evergreen Community College district, which operates San Jose City College, Evergreen Valley College, the Milpitas College Extension and the Community College Center for Economic Mobility. His columns appear every first Wednesday of the month. He can be reached at [email protected]