Community Colleges Deal With Enrollment Declines

University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College Chancellor Margaret A. Ellibee says students’ family needs have contributed to enrollment declines amid the pandemic.
University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College Chancellor Margaret A. Ellibee says students’ family needs have contributed to enrollment declines amid the pandemic. (Jason Burt)

Two-year colleges nationwide have been dealing with decreasing enrollment for years before the pandemic wreaked social and economic upheaval.

Experts say that in years past, community colleges often experienced enrollment increases in times of economic disruption because those who are underemployed or out of work decide it’s a good time to advance their education. But the pandemic’s chaos has not generally resulted in enrollment increases, either nationally or in Arkansas.

The state’s 22 community colleges saw enrollment drop 1.3% from 40,238 in fall 2020 to 39,697 in fall 2021. The numbers for 2021 are preliminary and won’t become official until January.

The state’s two largest two-year colleges both saw drops significantly greater than the state’s overall percentage. Northwest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville had preliminary fall enrollment of 7,081, a 4.5% decrease from 7,411 in 2020, while the University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College of North Little Rock had 4,426 students enroll in fall 2021, 7.8% fewer than the 4,803 of the previous year.

“That isn’t bad for us with everything that is going on,” said Ricky Tompkins, the vice president of learning for NWACC. “Spring enrollment began [Nov. 1], and we’re seeing some good numbers so far.”

UA-PTC Chancellor Margaret Ellibee is likewise taking a positive look at enrollment. She took over the college in 2012 when the enrollment was close to 12,000, by far the largest in the state.

She said in 2017, when the college became a part of the University of Arkansas System, that her goal had been to reduce the number of students, which she believed was inflated because of too many acceptances of students not prepared for college work.

“We are doing, I think, really well,” Ellibee said. “We are having a very strong semester, and we are very happy our students are back on campus. We were down just a tad. We have about 4,400 students for this fall.”

State of Affairs

The decline in enrollment isn’t confined to community colleges in Arkansas. Enrollment at four-year colleges dropped 1.1% from 2020 to 2021 even with a big boost in enrollment at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. The flagship institution had more than 29,000 enrolled, a 5.5% increase from 2020.

Nationwide, two-year college enrollment has dropped 14.1% since 2019, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. The drop in 2021 was 5.6% from 2020, which was an improvement from the 9% decrease in 2019.

“Far from filling the hole of last year’s enrollment declines, we are still digging it deeper,” said Doug Shapiro, the executive director of the NSC Research Center. “A year and a half into the COVID-19 pandemic, we continue to see significant nationwide declines in undergraduate students, and community colleges remain the most adversely affected sector, experiencing a 14.1% total enrollment decline since fall 2019.”

Ellibee said there are two contexts in which to consider declining enrollment. The first is through the students’ perspective: When the pandemic hit, many community college students (or potential students) couldn’t continue or enroll in courses because of the pandemic-related shutdowns.

“Our students, and nationally, looked at, ‘I’ve got to take care of my family at home,’” Ellibee said. “Students are concerned about what is going on with the pandemic and not sure if they should go back to school because of the health consequences. ‘I have children at home and day cares are closed, so I have to stay at home with my little ones.’ Many students were affected by their job being impacted by the pandemic.

“They had to do what was best for their family and their situation. They had to look at their family and themselves first.”

The other lens, Ellibee said, is the college’s. With social distancing in place and all schools switching to virtual learning, community colleges had to change their operations to teach students where they were while dealing with their own faculty and staff facing the same pandemic effects as many of their students.

Fall Enrollment at Two-Year Colleges in Arkansas

2021 numbers are preliminary   
2021 numbers are preliminary    (Arkansas Division of Higher Education)


Recruit and Retain

The transition to virtual and hybrid learning systems should pay off in the future, Ellibee and Tompkins said.

“We were able to do some things with modalities based on student demand,” Tompkins said. “We currently still have for the fall and spring [semesters] face-to-face sessions that are being held, and hybrid and fully online sessions. By doing that, it really has mitigated some of the issues concerning enrollment because we are providing different options based on the student comfort level, how they want to be with people. We are still building up to having more students on campus.”

Community colleges will also have to intensify their efforts to recruit and retain students.

One aspect of community colleges that has become popular are targeted, noncredit classes for occupations such as truck driving and welding. In these classes, students take instruction to earn certifications so they can quickly enter the sectors of the workforce where they’re most needed.

“There is going to be some expansion and some certification programs,” Tompkins said. “What we hear from our employers is they can’t wait two years. They need help now. We have students coming in asking what do we have for five weeks?”

Ellibee said UA-PTC provides support services — such as a food pantry and day care center — to help students.

“As far as colleges, we need to take a look at programs for students, not only recruit them but retain them and support them while they are enrolled in our institution,” Ellibee said. “Going forward, two-year colleges not only need to have very robust and very aligned career and technical education programs, but colleges also have to have those family support services in place.”