Disruptions in hands-on programs contributed to enrollment drop at community colleges

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Dive Brief:

  • Disruptions to academic programs with significant hands-on components, such as construction trades and mechanical and repair technology, heavily contributed to pandemic-related enrollment declines at community colleges, a new working paper suggests.
  • The National Bureau of Economic Research report also links this upheaval to falling enrollment of men, as many of the affected fields are male dominated.
  •  It found the disruptions in assembly and repair programs contributed to about 20% of the overall pandemic-related enrollment declines. 

Dive Insight:

The coronavirus pandemic defied college enrollment trends that came with past periods of economic contraction. Instead of more students returning to school to sharpen their skills, as occurred during the Great Recession, many didn’t pursue or exited postsecondary education. 

These enrollment declines were particularly precipitous for community colleges. The latest preliminary figures from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center show a roughly 14% decrease in community college enrollment from fall 2019 to fall 2021. 

The NBER report is some of the first research that aims to explain the disproportionate enrollment drops at two-year schools.

Its authors, professors at Northwestern University and the University of Virginia, found that two-year colleges with high concentrations of programs focused on assembly, repair and maintenance work experienced major enrollment declines. Community colleges often host programs with laboratory or hands-on work, which were more difficult to translate to online formats during the most restrictive months of the pandemic. 

To arrive at their conclusion, the researchers gathered community college enrollment data from seven states — California, Illinois, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia — which collectively represent more than half of U.S. two-year college enrollment. 

They compared fall 2019 and fall 2020 enrollment numbers, as well as the share of credentials earned in assembly and maintenance fields.

Programs in these areas tend to be male-centric, so a large decrease in male enrollment can be attributed to the changes in assembly and repair academic programming, they wrote. They estimated the high concentration of men in maintenance fields can explain 70% of the difference between men’s and women’s enrollment. 

Observers have suggested that colleges that had more quality online programming before the pandemic would not shed as many students as those without strong online options. But the new research did not support the idea that the robustness of community colleges’ online infrastructure can be used to predict enrollment changes, its authors wrote.

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