Recession Makes Community College an Appealing Option

College enrollment rates often go up in times of financial hardship and high unemployment, but the recent recession began a new era in college enrollment trends. According to a recent report released by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 2-year colleges saw an unexpected increase in enrollment rates.

By Mercy McKee


Students Turn to Community Colleges

The National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit group that tracks 93% of enrollment at all postsecondary institutions, released a report last month, National Postsecondary Enrollment Trends: Before, During, and After the Great Recession, which indicated a surprising trend. The report examined the cohorts of traditional-age, first-time college students who enrolled in colleges from the fall of 2006 through the fall of 2010.

As expected during an economic downturn, overall enrollment of new traditional-age students increased 6.8%, from 1.997 million in 2006 to 2.135 million in 2010. Less expected was the jump in enrollment into 2-year community colleges, which increased from 41.7% of all college enrollments in 2006 to 42.6% in 2007 and 2008, followed by an increase to 44.5% in 2009 before dropping slightly in 2010 to 42.9%, still 1.2% higher than it was in 2006 before the recession began.

The report suggests several causes for this emerging pattern. The first is a high unemployment rate, which may have caused students who would have otherwise gone directly into the workforce to go to school instead. Second, financial concerns and economic uncertainty may have caused students who otherwise would have gone to a more expensive 4-year school to opt for a more frugal 2-year school. And finally, students with financial need who probably would not have considered a postsecondary education may have been encouraged to enroll due to the increased federal investment in the Pell Grant program.

The Appeal of Community Colleges

The report points to the various strategies used by 2-year schools in an effort to draw more students and survive the recession as other possible reasons for the increase in community college enrollment from 2006-2010. These strategies included enhancements of physical capacity, increasing awareness of institutional offerings and improving public perception of community colleges through targeted marketing campaigns, reaching out to populations underserved by higher education, and actively pursuing relationships with high school students.

The country still faces a great deal of economic uncertainty. Read about how grad students are feeling the impact of hard economic times.

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