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Connecticut's community college enrollments plummet

Enrollment at Manchester Community College, above, has dropped 20% since 2019, while Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield has seen enrollment decline by 27.4% during the same period.
Jim Michaud
Enrollment at Manchester Community College (above) has dropped 20% since 2019, while Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield has seen enrollment decline by 27.4% during the same period.

Enrollment in the state’s community colleges, already dwindling over the years, has been further impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and a recent uptick in job openings, leading to fewer people deciding to attend two-year colleges.

Local colleges — Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield and Manchester Community College — were among the schools with the sharpest decline in students since the pandemic started, as well as over the past decade.

Asnuntuck has seen a 27.4% drop in full-time equivalent enrollment since 2019 and a 29.7% decrease over the past 10 years.

The college’s drop since 2019 is the largest decrease by percentage among any school in the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system and the largest decrease compared to pre-pandemic levels.

Likewise, MCC’s full-time equivalent enrollments have dropped 20.2% since 2019 and a whopping 44.3% since the fall of 2010.

Between 2020 and 2021, Asnuntuck’s percentage of full-time equivalent students has continued to tick down, dropping 3.2%, but the school did see a slight increase of 0.4% in part-time students.

MCC has seen the lowest drop by percentage during that same time period, with a nominal decrease of 0.5% of full-time equivalent students enrolled.

Other community colleges saw much larger enrollment declines during the pandemic. Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport and Norwalk Community College both saw a decline of 9.6% since 2020, and Naugatuck Valley Community College in Waterbury saw the largest percentage drop at 9.9%.

The state’s remaining community colleges’ declines in enrollment ranged from 4.4% to 6.7% since 2020.

State universities have also been affected by the pandemic, ranging from a 7.1% drop at Eastern Connecticut State University to a 10.3% decrease at Central Connecticut State University.

Systemwide, CSCU saw an overall reduction of 5.7% in full-time equivalent enrollments since 2020.

Economy a factor

Declining enrollment in state colleges and universities has been an ongoing trend for at least a decade, impacting more than just Asnuntuck and MCC.

While numbers fluctuate from year to year and from school to school, there has been an overall decline of more than 37% of full-time equivalent enrollments across the CSCU system since 2010, and a 19.3% drop since 2019, a year before the pandemic hit Connecticut.

While noting that community college enrollment has been steadily declining for the past decade, CSCU spokesman Leigh Appleby said there are several factors contributing to it.

“First, community college enrollment tends to be counter-cyclical with the economy; when the unemployment rate is high, college enrollments tend to increase,” he said. “To that end, our high-water enrollment mark came in 2010, on the heels of the Great Recession. … The strengthening economy is one factor in enrollment trends.”

The decline since then, Appleby said, has generally mirrored trends in unemployment, but he added that the pandemic and subsequent economic fallout, as well as a decline in high school graduates, have also played a part.

Along with declining enrollment comes a loss of revenue for the CSCU system, as tuition accounts for about one-third of community college revenue, Appleby said.

“A drop in tuition revenue has an impact on our financial position,” he said, adding that tuition and fees dropped from $188 million in fiscal year 2018 to $153 million in fiscal year 2021.

Appleby noted that federal funding over the past two years has been “instrumental both in balancing budgets and providing direct support to students.”

Lack of outreach

Seth Freeman, a professor at Capitol Community College in Hartford and president of the Congress of Connecticut Community Colleges, one of the unions that represents community college faculty and staff, said several factors are leading to enrollment decreases.

Some include the decline in high school graduates, and students choosing instead to go to private colleges or online schools.

Perhaps more influential, he said, could be the lack of marketing and services for students.

For example, Freeman said that the state’s community college system outsourced its call center in recent years, leading to frustrations from students unable to get assistance over the phone.

He also said that understaffed campuses add to a lack of outreach in order to be competitive with other institutions of higher education.

“The management never makes the connection between understaffing and enrollment decline,” Freeman said. “We see that as a factor.”

Appleby said the CSCU system is implementing programs to promote enrollment, including those that help place potential students in in-demand careers, “but recognizing demographic trends, we have put a renewed focus on retention of students as a key enrollment strategy.”

He touted the proposed merger of the community colleges as another potential way to “help remove obstacles that have prevented too many students from continuing and completing their education.”

One advantage of the merger, Appleby said, would be a significant increase of the number of advisers on each campus.

“Such reforms have been highly effective in other states,” he said.

Application fees a barrier

George Webb, a 33-year-old Hartford resident and president of the Student Government Association at MCC, said that he decided to return to school last year because he was more prepared and mature than he was just out of high school.

He opined that there may be a correlation between students taking college-level courses in high school, not passing, becoming discouraged, and deciding not to further their education after high school.

Webb noted that when he was in high school, the halls were often filled with college and trade school recruiters who could guide students through the enrollment process.

One way to help promote enrollment, he said, would be to eliminate expensive application fees, noting that some parents cannot afford to pay for multiple application fees.

“There are things that can be done,” Webb said.

Higher education enrollment nationally fell an additional 2.7% in the fall of 2021, following a 2.5% drop in the previous fall, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Throughout the pandemic, enrollment losses over two years amounted to 5.1%, representing about 983,000 students since the fall of 2019.

Undergraduate enrollment alone fell by 3.1% over the past year, with every institution sector seeing a drop in undergraduate enrollment, and the largest decline at private for-profit four-year colleges, which saw an 11.1% decrease, according to the research center.

While community colleges saw a smaller enrollment drop of 3.4% than in the previous fall, the number of students seeking an associate’s degree at four-year institutions fell more sharply compared to the previous year, according to the research center.

Although freshman enrollment stabilized this year, it did not make up for last year’s drop. The nation’s fall 2021 freshman class was 9.2% smaller, representing 213,400 fewer students, compared to pre-pandemic levels in the fall of 2019, the research center found.

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