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2014 December 19 - 05:31 am

Slow but Steady

Community College Enrollment Continues Decline

For the past several years, we have been chronicling a steady but modest decline in community college enrollment and its association to an improving economy. That trend appears to be continuing. Fall 2013 enrollment declined by 2.2 percent from Fall 2012 as the U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) increased by 2.8 percent. Although the decline in enrollments from 2012 to 2013 was not as large as the prior year decline (-3.4%), it is larger than the only other decline recorded over the last 10 years, the 1.6 percent decrease from 2010 to 2011. Indeed, since community college enrollment reached its all-time peak in 2010, it has declined 7.1 percent, from nearly 7.9 million to just over 7.3 million.

In this year’s analysis of enrollment changes at the nation’s community colleges, we examine in detail changes from Fall 2012 to Fall 2013, the most recent years for which comparable national data are available. As always, we use the data collected by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) through the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). As we note every year, the IPEDS definitions and counting rules present challenges for community colleges. Specifically, the IPEDS survey requests enrollment information for students who are “enrolled for credit,” that is, enrolled in “courses or programs that can be applied towards the requirements for a postsecondary degree, diploma, certificate, or other formal award.” This definition has always been problematic due to the diversity of community college educational offerings.

Traditionally, the term, “community college” was synonymous with publicly controlled, two-year institutions. Although we still focus on only public institutions, the expansion of degree offerings among a notable number of community colleges requires us to consider institutions now considered to be “four-year” within the IPEDS collection by virtue of offering as few as one bachelor’s degree program. To accommodate these institutions, we supplement the public, two-year sector with public, fouryear institutions that are categorized in one of the “Associate’s” categories within the basic Carnegie Classification. We continue our practice this year of segmenting institutions by size (<2,500; 2,500-4,999; 5,000- 9,999; and 10,000+) according to the most recent year’s (Fall 2013) enrollment count. We then show the Top 50 institutions in percent change enrollment from Fall 2012 to Fall 2013.

Enrollment Trends

Following the format we started last year, we compare the overall trend in enrollment at community colleges with the U.S. Domestic Gross Product (GDP), lagged by one year. The top portion of the graphical display shows the trend we noted in the first paragraph: a third year of decline that falls between the prior two years in size. As a result, total enrollments have returned to levels near the beginning of the Great Recession. The inverse pattern we noted last year against the GDP continues. The GDP measure we use controls for inflation and we lag the measure by a year (for example, the 2009 point is the 2008 value).

We also include in this analysis, a graphical portrayal of the distribution of institutions and enrollments according to the size categories we use in our Top 50 listings. Again, we see an inverse relationship: The largest number of institutions are in the smallest size category but enrollments are skewed toward the largest size categories and especially the group of largest institutions that enroll 10,000 or more students.

Our graphical portrayal also shows how these distributions have changed between 2003 and 2013. Specifically, the two smallest-size categories have declined in number of institutions and the larger two categories have grown as individual institutions have generally increased in size and moved into the next category. With this change in distribution, the enrollment has become even more skewed, to the point where the largest category (10,000+) now enrolls 57 percent of all students. 


We introduce a new table and chart this year that examine the distribution of change in enrollment from 2012 to 2013 by institution size. The statistics presented in the table show that the overall 1.5 percent is distributed fairly evenly across size categories, although there is a slightly smaller average change in the smallest size category with the largest average declines in the second size category (2,500-4,999). The last row of the table features the percent change among institutions that top our “Fastest Growing” lists, that is, the maximum percent increase in each category. The second to last row shows the other extreme in enrollment change: the largest percent declines in enrollments among the institutions in each category. The graph accompanying these tables illustrates the distribution of change. It is generally expected that percentage change is more variable among smaller size institutions than among larger ones. Between the standard deviation shown in the table and the chart, we see that the variation in change does decrease between the first and third size categories, but the change appears to stabilize between the third and fourth categories. The chart also reveals that most institutions appear in the range of about minus to plus 6 percent. Indeed, twothirds (66.6 percent) of the institutions fall into this range.

The lists that follow highlight the institutions that fall on the right (positive) side of the change distribution. Although the smallest size category (enrollment < 2,500) features institutions that experienced an increase of at least 9 percent, the larger categories, and especially the largest two, include institutions that grew by as little as 1 percent. If these trends continue, it is possible that by next year we may not have 50 institutions in the larger size categories that have experienced an enrollment increase.

Victor M.H. Borden is a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Indiana University Bloomington.


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