The Community College of Allegheny County has lost more than a third of its student body since the pandemic derailed the lives and aspirations of current and prospective students. But this fall, enrollment at the college stabilized.

Just over 10,500 students enrolled at the college, known as CCAC, according to data from the institution. That’s about a 0.4% increase from last year. Nationwide, community colleges reported a 4.4% increase from the previous year, preliminary data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center shows. 

“We’re out of the pandemic, people are getting better equipped to take in-person classes now. They feel like things are coming back to normal,” said Dorothy Collins, vice president for enrollment services at CCAC. “I think we’re trending upward. I’m happy.” 

While a silver lining, this small bump in enrollment still reflects a 34% drop from fall 2019 – and roughly a 50% drop from fall 2010, around the time community college enrollments peaked nationwide. 

Renewed declines could have significant implications. The college relies on tuition for a sizable share of revenue, and regional employers count on CCAC graduates to fill vital jobs in industries such as health care. On top of that, people without degrees often earn less over their lifetimes than those with them. 

Bringing students back is a priority for CCAC. The college has created a Strategic Enrollment and Retention Management Plan, and the cross-departmental team overseeing the plan will soon set goals around enrollment, retention and affordability, said Collins, who took over this summer. 

The college has not yet set specific numerical goals for boosting enrollment.  

What’s driving the growth?

Tom Brock, director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, said the nationwide upswing in community college enrollments is encouraging. He said the boost, though, is largely because they “fell so far during the pandemic that you could say, ‘They could only go back up.’”

CCAC’s Milton Hall on the school’s Allegheny Campus in Allegheny West on Jan. 18. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Collins attributed CCAC’s recent uptick to the region’s post-pandemic recovery, which may also be reflected in the diversity of the student body. Community colleges often serve communities of color that were disproportionately impacted by the crisis, and this fall, the share of students of color at CCAC exceeded pre-pandemic levels in some areas.

Black students made up about 17% of the student body, up from about 14% in fall 2021. The share of Hispanic and Latino students steadily increased throughout the pandemic, growing from roughly 3% in fall 2019 to 4% in fall 2023. The share of white students declined slightly during that time, from about 61% to 60%, with roughly 1 in 5 students falling into other categories.

But there are other factors driving the boost nationally, experts told PublicSource, and some could bode well for CCAC. Community colleges that focus on hands-on learning and short-term credentials have benefited from the public’s growing concern about student debt and declining confidence in the value of a four-year degree

“Families are seeing it as a better value,” Brock said. The tuition rate at CCAC for county residents taking classes full-time is $1,890 a semester, while the figure is at least $10,077 for in-state students at the University of Pittsburgh’s main campus.

People enter West Hall on CCAC’s Allegheny Campus in Allegheny West. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Collins has observed that more students are coming to the college looking for credentials that will quickly lead to well-paying jobs. The college has invested in this area, recently opening its $43 million Center for Education, Innovation and Training to house programs in the skilled trades and other high-demand fields. 

And since the pandemic, high schoolers have become a substantial boost to enrollment at community colleges nationwide, experts said. High schoolers can pay to take community college courses; the practice, known as dual enrollment, aims to reduce the time and cost associated with a four-year degree. 

CCAC wants to enroll “every type of student that wants to come here,” Collins said — and recruiting high schoolers is part of its strategy. So far, though, the college has not seen a substantial return from dual enrollment. High schoolers made up 16% of the country’s community college students in 2019 but just below 8% at CCAC that fall, according to data from the college. Since then, their share of CCAC’s student body has fallen to about 5%. 

“I think that you’ll see that our dual enrollment is going to increase after this semester,” Collins said. “We’re meeting, we’re going out, we send email blasts. We’ve sent a lot of information to let the high schools know that we’re here.” 

There are plenty of benefits for the high schoolers taking these classes, but their enrollment in a few courses may not bring CCAC the same revenue as a full-time student. 

“By and large, community colleges do worse financially by enrolling a dual-enrolled student,” said Joshua Wyner, founder and executive director of the College Excellence Program at the Aspen Institute, noting lower tuition and subsidies for the high school students. 

People walk through CCAC’s Tom Foerster SSC Building on the school’s Allegheny Campus. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

But these students can come back after graduation, Wyner said, especially if the colleges provided them with meaningful advising and helped them take courses that match their career interests. At Florida’s Valencia College, for example, about half its dual-enrollment students return. Most community colleges see about 20%, Wyner said.

Collins said CCAC is looking at ways to reduce or cover the cost of dual enrollment, from securing grant funding for some students to “trying to entice the state” to pay for these programs. Ohio, for example, covers the tuition and textbook fees of public high school students through its College Credit Plus program

Beyond these areas, she said CCAC is working to bring students back by hosting walk-ins to help students complete federal financial aid applications; marketing open houses months in advance; and informing prospective students of the college’s support services. 

Enrolling students is half the battle

A shrinking student population isn’t the only challenge CCAC faces; many students struggle to reach graduation after they sign up for classes. 

Community college students often face more challenges than students at four-year universities, as they are more likely to be low-income. At CCAC, almost 40% struggle to consistently access basic needs like food, shelter or child care, according to minutes of meetings of the college’s Board of Trustees. 

A person walks toward CCAC’s Milton Hall on the school’s Allegheny Campus. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Still, the college’s graduation rate falls short of accreditation standards. Only 20% of full-time freshmen who enroll for the first time graduate three years later — one year beyond what an associate’s degree typically requires — according to a college spokesperson. The Middle States Commission on Higher Education says the rate should be at least 23% and has required the college to detail its plan for improvement. The commission will decide whether to renew CCAC’s accreditation in 2026

CCAC is working to meet the commissions’ standard, Collins said. The college has purchased software that alerts the institution when students are missing or failing classes, she said, and the enrollment planning committee will prioritize reaching the requirement.

“We’re going to be intrusive. We’re going to be deliberate. We’re reaching out, ‘Hey, you’re not doing what you said you were going to do when you decided to come to this institution. Now, we want to get you back on track. We want to help you succeed,’” she said.

Experts pointed to a variety of reforms that could help students enroll and graduate. Colleges should be more flexible with when, and how, courses are offered, and potentially expand online and weekend options. They should improve partnerships with four-year universities to help students transfer seamlessly. And they need greater financial support from state or local governments to help low-income students finance college. 

Take Virginia’s “Get a Skill. Get a Job. Get Ahead,” or “G3,” program, which the state officially launched in 2021. Initially funded at $69 million over two years, the program provides tuition assistance to students with annual household incomes below a certain level pursuing degrees in “high-demand” fields. Enrollment in eligible academic programs grew by 9% from fall 2020 to fall 2021, according to reporting by Virginia’s public media outlet.

A few community colleges nationwide have staved off enrollment declines by sharpening their focus on student success, according to the Aspen Institute. The Alamo Colleges District, a system of five in Texas, improved their graduation and transfer rates after hiring more advisers and ensuring all students received guidance earlier, among other improvements. Over the last decade, enrollment grew by 24%.

Lake Area Technical College, a small community college in South Dakota, saw enrollment grow by 61% in the last decade, partly because it tailored its academic offerings to the workforce needs of the region. More than three-quarters of students graduate in three years, and nearly all are employed one year after graduation. 

People enter West Hall on CCAC’s Allegheny Campus. (Photo by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)

Above all, community colleges need to ensure their students get bachelor’s degrees or well-paying jobs, Wyner said. “Colleges that deliver value — meaning strong graduation rates and degrees that have value to students after they graduate, either in transfer or in the workforce — have gained enrollment. … 

“I think that too many colleges believe that they can market their way out of the current challenge or recruit their way out,” Wyner added. “I just don’t think we’re at a moment where that’s likely to work.”

Higher education reporter for PublicSource in partnership with Open Campus.