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 Decline in Enrollment at Community Colleges Continues, But Smaller Than Previous Year 

5/20/2014

New national enrollment data from the National Student Clearinghouse (NSC) shows a continued, but slowed, decline in spring 2014 from the previous year. Decline in enrollment at public two-year institutions of 2.7 percent, higher than the overall decrease of 0.8%, but smaller than the 3.1 percent decrease the preceding period between spring 2012 and 2013. However, the decrease in the enrollment of community college students over the age of 24 is 5.9 percent, more than double the overall decline in these institutions.

The overall enrollment was down less than one percent (0.8%) compared to a year ago, but that finding masks sector differences in enrollment. Four-year private non-profit and public institutions experienced increased in enrollment, 2.0 percent and 0.7 percent respectively. But these increases were more than offset by declines in four-year for-profit institutions (4.9%) and two-year public institutions (2.7%). The down peak in enrollment occurred between spring 2012 and spring 2013, when all sectors saw a drop of 2.3 percent. During this time period enrollment at public two-year institutions decreased by 3.6 percent, compared to an 8.7 percent at four-year for-profit institutions and 1.1 percent at public four-year institutions.

Changes in enrollment were not evenly distributed across all types of students or all sectors.  Younger students, defined as those 24 years of age or under, was the only student category to experience an increase rather than a decrease from the previous year in total overall enrollment (0.7%). Four-year institutions saw an increase of about two percent, 1.9 percent and 2.1 percent at public and private not-for-profit institutions, respectively. While the enrollment of younger students decreased at two-year public institutions that represented a much smaller decline than that in the total enrollment (0.5% compared to 2.7%). With an improving economy it is not surprising that older adults are choosing to return to the workforce instead of attending postsecondary education themselves and that the families of younger students are in a better position to afford to pay for their children’s education. The difference between the four-year and two-year institutions may be explained by the differences in the socioeconomic backgrounds of their respective students.

The smaller decreases in overall enrollment of men and students-attending full-time during this time period are more difficult to explain, but probably are also related to a combination student and economic factors. The findings are more mixed when comparing the changes in enrollment at four-year and two-year public institutions. As the table above shows, the enrollment of women and full-time students at public-four-year institutions was higher than for men and their part-time counterparts. At public two-year institutions a different phenomenon is occurring as the decrease in enrollment of women is higher than for men (3.2% as opposed to 2.1%) and for students attending full-time compared to part-time students, 3.1 percent and 2.5 percent, respectively. 

It should also be pointed out that there are great variations across states in the change in the overall  enrollment between Spring 2013 and spring 2014, ranging from an 8.4 percent decrease in Iowa to an increase of 15.5 percent in New Hampshire. State-by-state enrollment changes are not provided by sector.
The NSC data account for 96 percent of enrollments at U.S. Title IV, degree-granting institutions.

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