Why Fewer People are Enrolling in Community Colleges

Much of the problem lies in the supply side of “supply and demand,” say Batten economist Sarah Turner and her colleague Diane Schanzenbach.

Why Fewer People are Enrolling in Community College
Batten School Professor Sarah Turner and co-author Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach found that high unemployment during COVID diverged from prior downturns and enrollment at community colleges dropped, with the drop larger among men. (Illustration by Macy Brandon)

Normally, when unemployment rises, more people enroll in colleges, universities and trade schools. This is exactly what economists Sarah Turner and Diane Schanzenbach guessed was happening in fall 2020.

The phenomenon makes sense from a logical standpoint. If you can’t find a job in the present, why not invest in new skills that could help you land one in the future? But when Schanzenbach and Turner looked at the data, a surprising trend emerged.

“Our guess on the numbers was entirely wrong,” said Turner, a professor of economics, education and public policy at the Batten School. “So the puzzle master in me set out to figure out why.”

Between fall 2019 and fall 2020, enrollment in post-secondary schools declined by 4.5%. At community colleges, it dropped even further — 9.5% overall and nearly 15% among men. That last statistic was especially surprising to the researchers, since they had imagined that increased childcare burdens would cause fewer women, not men, to enroll.

In a new working paper published in the National Bureau of Economic Research, Turner and Schanzenbach explore what lies behind these new patterns. Three Batten students — Eileen Powell (MPP ’24), Victor Sanchez (MPP ’23) and Katherine Shriver (MPP ’23) — assisted with the project.

For the study, the researchers collected data from community colleges in seven states, which represent more than half of enrollment in two-year colleges nationally: California, Illinois, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.

The researchers found that community colleges specializing in hands-on technical fields, such as welding and automotive repair, saw greater drops in enrollment. Because more men tend to enroll in such courses, that decrease accounted for “almost all the greater decline in the enrollment of men relative to women during the COVID period,” the researchers note in their paper.

It stands to reason that classes which rely heavily on in-person learning would see lower enrollment during a pandemic. “Sometimes, economics proves common sense,” Turner said.

Sometimes, economics proves common sense.

Sarah Turner
University Professor of Economics, Education and Public Policy

“If you think about courses like math, those can be put on Zoom fairly easily,” she continued. “Other courses of study — well, it's not such a good idea to practice welding from your living room.”

Responses to a winter 2020 survey of automotive instructors, which the researchers also analyzed, underscored this challenge.

“It is impossible to ‘teach’ tire replacement through a screen,” one instructor wrote. Another complained, “I've been seeing more and more students that don't know the difference between 1/4", 3/8," and 1/2" drive sockets or how to even use a ratchet!”

Turner and Schanzenbach frame the issue in terms of supply (the courses community colleges are able to offer) and demand (student desire for those courses).

The paper focuses on the supply side of the equation. Classes in hands-on technical fields are costly for community colleges. Unlike courses in English or economics, they often require expensive equipment and lab space. And during COVID, the costs of such classes further increased, even in locations where instructors didn’t have to deal with the hassle of moving their courses fully online.

“You have to reduce your class size to allow for social distancing and then you have these increased costs of sanitizing all of the equipment,” Turner said. These COVID-induced shocks to the course supply, she added, explain “why the numbers drop so precipitously.”

A similar phenomenon might be affecting the healthcare field. For a new project, Turner is delving into recently collected data about professions like nursing.

“There is an enormous demand in the labor market, yet enrollment in RN and nursing programs has actually declined during the COVID period,” she said. “Our aim is to understand how much of that is driven by reluctance to enter healthcare fields, which is what you might call the demand side.”

Turner suspects that the obstacles community colleges face in providing adequate healthcare courses — such as the need for in-person clinical experience and a lack of available and qualified instructors — may in fact be playing a bigger role.

In other words, “there's a real question as to whether there's a sufficient supply right now,” she said.

Federal officials have been in communication with the researchers about their paper on enrollment decline at community colleges, Turner said. Its findings have implications far beyond the COVID era, not only for academic administrators, but also for policymakers.

That’s because while there is sizable demand for car mechanics, welders and nurses, supply limitations may be pushing community colleges to avoid supporting those fields.

“It costs different amounts to produce different degrees, but on the student side, institutions tend to charge the same price for all programs of study,” Turner said. This could be leading colleges to refrain from expanding high-demand programs, given that doing so often involves constructing new buildings, purchasing more equipment or other costly measures.

Policymakers could create incentives to counteract this effect, Turner pointed out. Financially supporting high-demand programs could avert future disruptions in the labor market, such as a scarcity of automotive technicians.

It could also help community colleges continue providing pathways for Americans to elevate their economic status. Research suggests that coursework in technical fields in particular can provide significant financial benefits for adult learners.

“It will take some work to get the policy design right,” Turner said, “but community colleges are going to need the tools to expand those programs where people are likely to get jobs that lead to economic security and mobility.”

Such programs may be high cost, but they’re also high return.

Garrett Hall at Sunset

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