Higher Education

The Role of Community Colleges in a Recovering Post-COVID Marketplace

Community College

By Sean Carton \ January 11, 2021

2020 was rough for education.

The global pandemic not only disrupted classroom instruction all over the world, but tough economic conditions coupled with confusion and uncertainty led to declining enrollments as students deferred admission or sought out other alternatives to the traditional college experience. However, these very problems also present a unique opportunity for Community Colleges across the nation. 

The COVID-19 pandemic seems to have accelerated many of the trends plaguing higher education for years before the pandemic, such as increased competition from private, for-profit institutions. As Stephanie Riegg Cellini of the Brookings Institution observes, “The combined effects of a pandemic-induced recession, campus closures, and the deregulation of the for-profit sector under the Trump administration have created a perfect storm for a resurgence of the for-profit sector.” In fact, Cellini writes, “enrollment in for-profit institutions rose by 13% among first-time students aged 21-24 and rose by 15% among those aged 25-29.” While there are certainly a wide range of factors at work, as Tela Dudley of The Century Foundation observed, much of the shift may be attributed to increased marketing efforts by the for-profits, targeted towards “students looking to ‘upskill’ for a new job or industry and those frustrated with the online transition of their traditional institutions.” 

Besides increasing competitive pressures, colleges have also had to deal with students deciding whether to attend college at all. As the Household Pulse Survey from the U.S. The Census Bureau has found, a staggering 82.8% of US households where one adult was planning on attending college in the fall had either canceled or changed their plans to attend school. Sadly, the pandemic has had the greatest impact on the post-secondary education plans of the least-advantaged, with households having incomes of less than $34,999 being the most likely to report changed college plans. Considering the income levels of community college attendees, it’s no surprise that the Census Bureau found that 40% of households reported in October that at least one prospective student in the household is completely cancelling their plans to attend community college and an additional 15% were planning on taking fewer classes or switching programs as reported by the Community College Research Center.

Community Colleges Got Hit Hard

While the pandemic’s impact has been tough on higher education in general, it’s clear that community colleges have been hit the hardest. In November, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported that, unsurprisingly, college enrollment was down across the board, with an average decline of 3.275% compared to 2019. This trend was obviously bad for all types of institutions, but the average doesn’t tell the whole tale: the real surprise comes from looking at the differences between types of institutions, which ranged from a decrease of only 0.1% for 4-year private for-profit schools to a staggering 9.0% decline in enrollment for 2-year public colleges. 

While these numbers are bad enough, the outlook for the immediate future looks bleak as well. The pandemic’s impact on high school students has been severe, even those who aren’t thinking about college in the 2021-2022 academic year.  Not only have their economic prospects been diminished by pandemic-driven unemployment, but their academic preparation has taken a strong hit from the resulting turmoil in schools. A new report from McKinsey & Company found that, nationally, students “on average, started school about three months behind where we would expect them to be in mathematics. Students of color were about three to five months behind in learning; white students were about one to three months behind.” With this many high school students so behind academically, many in the coming 2021-22 college freshman class may not even be academically prepared to start college, even if they want to.

A New Hope

When covering the Census Bureau report discussed earlier, Audrey Williams June noted in the November 19th issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education that the enrollment intentions of prospective community college students had continued to slide during the pandemic.

“[C]ommunity colleges continued to suffer the most of all institution types,” she wrote. Even more alarmingly, she added, during the pandemic community colleges “didn’t benefit from typical counter cyclical trends. Community colleges often see an influx of new students looking to retool their skills during economic downturns. But that has yet to happen.”

But to get the real picture of what’s happening, it’s important to look at why people changed their college plans. When the Census Bureau asked that question, the top two responses were health related — people either caught the virus, had to care for someone who caught the virus, or were worried about catching the virus —‚ and because they were unhappy with the rapid move to online classes brought about by pandemic health concerns. In other words, people changed their plans because of the pandemic, not because they didn’t want to go to college. 

Ultimately this is good news for community colleges. Now, as the first batches of the COVID-19 vaccine leave the factory, it’s clear that there’s an end to the pandemic in sight. And that end will ease those health concerns. When that happens, we believe the demand for education that’s been bottled up by the pandemic will explode, even if an economic recovery lags behind. People who’ve deferred their plans will start looking at college again. Workers who lost their jobs will start looking at community colleges to retrain and enhance their job skills to make themselves more competitive. Employers who postponed training what became a remote workforce will start looking to bring those workers back up to speed. High school students who fell behind academically will look for classes to get them college-ready. Recent high school graduates who put off college because of academic uncertainty and health concerns will look for ways to enter college that they may not have considered before, and a big part of what they’re going to be looking at are community colleges. 

We believe that the future of community colleges is actually pretty bright.  So yeah, 2020’s been a pretty tough year. And yeah, we’re going to be pretty happy to leave it behind us, as we’re sure you are, too. But as we hope we’ve demonstrated, we’re pretty optimistic about the future and we’re excited to have this opportunity to partner with CCBC to both prepare for that future and to seize the opportunity we’re confident that future will bring. Read on to find out how.

Sean Carton
Chief Strategist
Sean Carton
Chief Strategist

Sean leads our Discover360 engagements, gathering data and research to develop the insights necessary for crafting effective strategies for our clients. He has a perfectly varied background for our higher education and nonprofit partners: He’s served as everything from a dean to an adjunct professor to the co-director of a high school cybersecurity summer camp to the leader of a university 3D printing lab. Sean also has an uncanny talent for creating the perfect meme faster than you can search for one.