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By Paul Bradley  /  
2015 December 29 - 10:01 pm

Taking Its Toll

Recession After-Effects Cause Decline In Enrollment, Graduation Rates


Six years after the Great Recession officially ended, its after effects continue to ripple through the nation’s community colleges.

Across the country, overall enrollment continues a slow and steady decline, from a high of 7.8 million students in 2010 to 7.1 million in 2014, according to a Community College Week analysis of available data.

And as enrollment declines, so too are graduation rates, potentially undermining the Obama administration’s top higher education goal: making the United States, by the year 2020, once again the country with the highest percentage of college graduates in the world. The country currently ranks 19th in that category, according to a study conducted by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The latest statistics seem to make Obama’s graduation goals more elusive than ever. The trend line is heading in the wrong direction.

Among the 2.9 million students who enrolled in college in 2009, the overall six-year completion rate was 52.9 percent, a decline of 2.1 percentage points from the fall 2008 cohort, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Of students who started their college education at a two-year school, the overall completion rate slipped from 39.1 percent to 38.1 percent. That decline was almost entirely among students who transferred to a four-year college. Among all students who started at a two-year college in 2009, just 15.1 percent had completed a degree at a four-year institution within six years, down from 16.2 percent for fall 2008 students.

At first blush, the numbers appear disappointing, another indication that the work underway on college campuses to help students earn college credentials is failing. But a closer look reveals something different, a more nuanced conclusion.

For example, while completion rates for the 2009 cohort decreased, overall the number of degrees and certificates colleges awarded actually climbed by 71,000, owing to the fact that more people were enrolling in college than the year before. The overall class size was 8 percent larger in 2009 than it was in 2008 as students returned to classrooms to weather the storm of the Great Recession.

But while the recession officially ended in 2009, its effects persist. As the economy has improved, graduation rates have declined, as has the number of students enrolled.

At least some of the students enrolled in college in 2009 to burnish their skills in a depressed job market, but then left school as the economy improved and they were able to get jobs.

Take West Virginia, for example. The state’s nine community and technical colleges have lost more than 5,000 students since 2010, according to higher education officials, a decline of more than 20 percent. Enrollment is currently slightly more than 21,000 students.

The attrition has been attributed to the ebbs and flows of the economy. Two-thirds of the system’s students are 21 and older. More than 30 percent are older than 30. Many of them are now in the workforce instead of in the classroom.

That kind of data comes as no surprise to higher education analysts.

“The data seem unsurprising to me, given the clear historical trends in enrollment — particularly in community colleges — in relation to economic cycles,” Kay McClenney, a senior adviser to the president of the American Association of Community Colleges, wrote in an email. “While this is certainly speculative, it’s not unlikely that students in the 2009 cohort began to see some upticks in employment opportunities that they needed to take advantage of.”

She added: “I hope the impact of the data is to encourage community college people to double down on the work. We have learned something very important over the past ten years of hard work; that is, that implementation of discrete strategies for student success, even when those strategies may produce good results, is simply not a powerful enough solution for the challenges we seek to address. Getting to bold completion goals requires a far more substantial overhaul of students’ educational experience. The good news is that we do have colleges that are leading the way.”

George Boggs, former AACC president, sees a direct link between unemployment rates, enrollment and college completion rates.

“I think college completion rates were driven higher by the severe economic recession that started in the third quarter of 2008 and the following very slow recovery,” he wrote in an email. “People who otherwise would have been working at least part time were going to college and staying there. Community colleges experienced significant enrollment growth as the recession took hold. Now that the economy is improving, community college enrollment is generally down.”

“There seems to be a correlation between unemployment rates and AA degree completion,” he added. “A look at college completion rates shows a similar pattern. Note that there is a six-year delay from admission to expected graduation. The lower the unemployment rate, the lower the college completion rate, especially for working-age students. If people can’t get jobs, they may decide to stay in school. If they can’t work part time, maybe they take a full load of coursework—which has been shown to increase completion rates.”

Boggs said numerous other factors are at work. States drastically reduced funding for higher education in the wake of the recession, stripping colleges of resources they needed to help students complete their degree. Arizona, for example, has cut state funding to zero for its largest community colleges. In California, a new report by the Campaign for College Opportunity shows that the university segments do not have the capacity even to enroll the number of qualified California students who need a college education, let alone graduate them.

Ben Miller, senior director for post-secondary education at the Center for American Progress, said many of the students who entered college in 2009 were unprepared for college, depressing completion rates.

“Some of the increased enrollment in 2009 was due to demographic increases in the number of college-age students,” he wrote in an email. “But some of it was people being drawn into the system either due to a lack of jobs, hearing about the importance of college, or something else. Those people may not be as prepared and so may be less likely to succeed unless the institution itself changes the way it acts. In that light, depending upon the number of additional students, only a slight decline might actually be a positive result.”

The data show that the completion agenda is a work in progress.

“I think what this is showing is that the completion agenda cannot happen overnight. First you have to enroll the students, then you have to keep them and complete them. The 2009 figures show the first part of that equation. Hopefully future cohorts show progress on the latter two parts.”

The results should not dissuade colleges from continuing their work on the completion agenda, said Doug Shapiro, executive research director of the research center.

“Without the considerable efforts to improve student outcomes at the institutional, state, and federal levels, these declines could have been even worse given the demographic and economic forces at play,” he said in a statement. “This year’s completions report helps practitioners and policymakers to identify where opportunities for improvement may be the greatest.”

Boggs agreed. “I believe that the focus on increasing student success rates has had a positive effect, and I am optimistic that we will continue to make progress,” he said. “Community college initiatives like Achieving the Dream and those to improve student pathways are very much worthwhile, as are all of the initiatives designed to improve college readiness and to redesign developmental education. I believe that economic cycles cause significant headwind or tailwind, but what would the data look like if we were not making these efforts?”

2009 College Cohort by Starting Institution

The fall 2009 college cohort included more than 2.9 million students. The largest percentage (40.6 percent) was enrolled in four-year public institutions followed by two-year public colleges. Here is a closer look at the makeup of the cohort.

Six-Year Outcomes by Starting Institution

The completion rate for college students who first enrolled in 2009 varied by the type of institution they attended. Here is a breakdown of enrollment status by institution type.

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