Photo by Brad West on Unsplash

This week’s issue looks at collapsing community college enrollments, what’s working in Michigan and other states, a marketing tool to find adult students, and UF Online’s new partnership with three open-access colleges. (Sign up here to get this newsletter.)

Vanishing Students

Something is going on with community college enrollments.

The pandemic-fueled flux is hardly over. And perhaps students will return to two-year colleges when things settle down. But if preliminary fall enrollment numbers from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center hold up, the sector would be down 14 percent over two years—the largest collapse in a half century.

Other types of colleges also are enrolling fewer students these days, particularly those with open-access admissions policies that serve lower-income students.

Higher education in the U.S. hit peak enrollment in 2010 and is down by roughly 1.5M students since then. For-profit colleges have shrunk the most, collectively enrolling half the students they did in 2010. But community colleges also have been hit hard, with a 27 percent enrollment decline during the decade before 2019, prior to the pandemic and the demographic cliff that’s projected to arrive in about five years.

Free Community College Goes Down: The two-year sector’s deepening enrollment crisis comes as community colleges and their students appear to have suffered another Charlie Brown moment, with Democrats dropping their free community college plan amid the scramble to pass a skinnier version of the Biden administration’s Build Back Better plan.

It’s not the first time ambitious bids to steer federal subsidies to community colleges have been scaled back or scrapped. But the latest setback stings. And some advocates for community colleges are angry with their peers who represent four-year colleges and universities and either stayed mum about the free community college plan or criticized it while instead pushing for an increase to the maximum Pell Grant award.

This decision by lobbyists for four-year institutions “was a mistake they’ll come to regret,” said Martha Kanter, an Education Department official during the Obama administration and the CEO of College Promise.

Other two-year college champions said the Biden plan should have been structured or marketed differently, while some appeared to be moving on and advocating for increases to Pell awards.

Parsing the Data: Amid a growing number of warning signs about millions of young Americans who may be leaving the college pipeline, several findings from the clearinghouse’s preliminary fall enrollment report are worth watching. Data points highlighted by Elyse Ashburn for Work Shift include:

  • Undergraduate enrollment among 25- to 29-year-olds dropped by 8.3 percent.
  • Full-time enrollment at community colleges was down 9.8 percent.
  • Enrollment in associate degree programs declined by 6.6 percent.
  • In a reversal, enrollment of women dropped slightly more than men.

Many factors likely are contributing to the enrollment woes of nonselective colleges. A lack of childcare options is one of them.

Bob Shireman, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and one of Kanter’s former department colleagues, suggested last week that Democrats’ push to make childcare free or more affordable may be just as important for higher education advocates as a large new federal subsidy would be for the industry. 

Nearly 4M undergraduates—22 percent of all U.S. undergrads—were raising children while attending college in 2019, according to a new report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research that looks at links between student success and childcare options. Fully 40 percent of Black women who attend college are parents.

However, the share of public institutions that offer childcare has declined substantially, the institute found, to 45 percent from 59 percent in 2004. The steepest drop (nearly 17 percentage points) occurred at community colleges, where the largest share of student parents are enrolled.

The Kicker: “Just 18 percent of student parents earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree within six years of enrolling in college,” the report’s co-authors wrote.

Marketing Free College

Roughly 30M American adults have a substantial intent to enroll in additional education, according to CollegeAPP, a market research firm. The challenge for community colleges is to reach these potential students and then be able offer them low-cost, high-quality credentials that pay off in the job market.

In a demo, I watched as the CollegeAPP folks zoomed in on a likely candidate for enrolling in college or a job training program—a 50-something who lives in suburban Dayton, Ohio. The company’s person-level predictive modeling is similar to tools used by presidential campaigns. It can be tapped to help colleges identify adults who have a high probability of intending to enroll in the next two years.

In Michigan, for example, the firm estimates that 1.1M adults without degrees have decent odds of being successfully recruited by a college.

Several Michigan community colleges are bucking national enrollment trends, reports Lilah Burke for Work Shift. And the state’s two new free tuition programs—Michigan Reconnect and Futures for Frontliners—appear to be part of what’s working.

Enrollment at Michigan’s Muskegon Community College is up 7 percent this fall compared to a year ago. John Selmon, the college’s provost, told Burke that a quarter of its 3,695 students are recipients of one of the two large and targeted scholarship programs.

To enroll more students who are in their late 20s or older, states should draw from Michigan’s playbook, says Jack MacKenzie, founder and CEO of CollegeAPP:

“Michigan made a commitment to communicating the benefits of the Futures for Frontliners program, and it worked. Other states offer tuition-free college but don’t communicate it, and many of those programs suffer.”

+ Read the full story at Work Shift. Community colleges keep losing students. Can targeted programs change that?

New Consortium in Florida

UF Online recently teamed up with three of the state’s open-access institutions that mostly offer associate degrees—what Florida used to call community colleges. The new Gator Pathways offers a seamless transfer route to 24 bachelor’s degree programs from the University of Florida for students who enroll at Santa Fe College, Seminole State College, and the College of Central Florida.

Walmart recently dropped UF Online as an education partner for its employees through Guild Education. The retail giant was concerned that too few of its workers could get into UF Online, which admitted 46 percent of the 182 Walmart student applicants.

Through the new network, however, UF Online can open its virtual doors to less academically competitive students, including recipients of employer tuition benefit programs.

“We’re shifting from admission decisions of ‘no’ to ‘welcome, let’s find your path,’” says Evangeline Cummings, the university’s assistant provost and director of UF Online. “That’s only possible thanks to our state college partners that will welcome learners who may not be right for UF admissions criteria right off the bat but most certainly can do the work and meet UF’s transfer criteria.”

UF Online will review each application and help students determine the right path. Those admitted to the university’s online program already have a personal academic advisor. With the creation of the new network, UF Online added the Gator Path Guides program, which offers each student an in-house guide and single point of contact as they work through their studies to prepare to transfer to the university via UF Online.

Gator Pathways is seeking to attract employer partners that want to support student workers together as a consortium. That means collaborating on how best to help students integrate work and college, Cummings says, adding that the new network can customize its programs and offerings to match the needs of company partners.

The Kicker: “We want to lower as many barriers as possible for learners, no matter where they work, no matter their education benefits,” says Cummings. “High denial rates are so pre-pandemic. Meeting our learners where they are, across a lifetime, is our focus right now.”

Open Tabs


COVID-related childcare disruptions have affected 19 percent of U.S. households, according to a new analysis from National Research Center on Hispanic Children & Families. Disruptions were especially common among Latino (22 percent) and Black (24 percent) households, which were much less likely than white households to be able to adjust by using paid leave.

Unequal ROI

Women, first-generation students, and people of color were less likely than their counterparts to experience the postgraduation benefits of a college education, according to the results of a survey of 3,309 bachelor’s degree holders by the Strada Education Network. Women were 11 percentage points less likely than men to report annual earnings of more than $40K or to say their education was worth the cost.

The median annual earnings of white men and women with bachelor’s degrees are 30 percent and 19 percent higher than those of Black men and women with similar degrees, according to a new report from the Education Trust. The group surveyed 1,300 Black student loan borrowers, finding that just one-third of respondents felt that student loans improve the life opportunities of Black borrowers.

A bachelor’s degree is worth a $306K increase in median lifetime earnings for students who graduate on time, according to a new analysis of federal data by Preston Cooper, a visiting fellow at the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity. The report found a wide range of variability across college majors, however. And the median ROI bump fell to $129K for students who drop out or take longer to complete.

Companies and HBCUs

United Airlines has partnered with three HBCUs to recruit students into its United Aviate Academy, which offers learn-and-earn opportunities to aspiring pilots, reported Victoria Lim for WorkingNation. United recently set a goal for half of all Aviate students to be women and people of color. The three participating institutions are Delaware State University, Elizabeth City State University, and Hampton University.

The Last Word

Ardine Williams, Amazon’s vice president of workforce development, spoke at a virtual event this week hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. I asked Williams to respond to people who are nervous about blurred lines between higher education and the growing number education and training programs offered by companies, including IBM and Amazon.

“It really isn’t college or upskilling—that question is an oversimplification,” she said, calling upskilling a team sport where companies and colleges must work together to help prepare more people for tech jobs. “That collaboration between institutions of higher education and businesses large and small is what’s going to enable us to scale the workforce that we need for the jobs of today and the jobs of tomorrow.”

That’s a wrap on another busy seven days of news. Let me know what I missed? I’ll be turning over the newsletter to Work Shift next week as I head to San Diego for my first work trip since the pandemic began. Catch you on the flip. —@paulfain

A veteran higher education journalist and analyst, Paul focuses on the connections between education and the American workforce.