Why aren’t more adults finishing community college?

Batten School professor Ben Castleman and his colleagues look at trends in the decline of community college enrollment.
Why aren't more adults finishing community college and can we get them back in the classroom?

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, community colleges across the country have grappled with substantial enrollment declines. Even with the resumption of in-person learning at many institutions this fall, community college enrollment is 6% lower than fall 2020 and 14.8% lower than fall 2019. College enrollments had been slowly declining through much of the 2010s, in part stemming from demographic trends toward a smaller population of traditional college-age youth, though the pandemic further accelerated these trends.

In the face of these challenges, many states and colleges have looked increasingly to older adult populations to offset enrollment declines among the youngest adults. Numerous states have made substantial policy investments to increase enrollment among older adults; a prominent example is Tennessee Reconnect, a state-funded, last-dollar scholarship program targeted specifically to adults 25 and older in Tennessee.

Increasing state investments in older adult enrollment (or re-enrollment) is driven in part by data suggesting that, across the United States, there are tens of millions of adults with some college credits but no degree or credential. From a policy perspective, this population seems like low-hanging fruit to increase college enrollment and graduation. These students have already participated in college and made progress toward a credential, so they have demonstrated some inclination and potential for postsecondary success. The monetary benefits of a college-level credential are large and growing, so supporting adults to finish would presumably improve their labor-market prospects.

And yet, existing evidence suggests that efforts to increase enrollment and re-enrollment among adults have had limited success. For instance, sending former community college students in Florida text messages with information about re-enrollment had no effect on adults coming back to college; including tuition waivers only led to a modest increase in re-enrollment. Why wouldn’t more adults choose to complete their programs, given the numerous benefits associated with earning a credential?

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Benjamin Castleman

Garrett Hall at Sunset

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