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Washington, DC CNN  — 

Community colleges provide access to postsecondary education at a much lower cost compared to four-year universities. But even as employers nationwide are struggling to find qualified workers, community college enrollment is barely beginning to recover from a two-decade steady decline and an even steeper dive when the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

Things have finally turned a corner for community colleges with enrollment numbers picking up in the spring and fall semesters, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. But if that recovery doesn’t persist, that could come with economic consequences in coming years, such as labor shortages in certain industries and mergers between two-year schools.

Demand for certain jobs, such as electricians and health care aides, is expected to hold steady, or even increase, in the coming years. Community colleges offer training programs and degrees for just those kinds of jobs.

A report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce projects that “72 percent of jobs in the US will require postsecondary education and/or training” by 2031.

The job market

Yet enrollment at two-year schools remains well below pre-pandemic levels. The story is the same at four-year universities, with enrollment also on a steady decline which only intensified during the pandemic.

There are a few possible reasons why enrollment at community colleges in particular has declined so sharply. One is attributed to the strength of the US labor market in recent years, which argues that some students are not enrolled in school because they’re taking advantage of the abundance of available jobs paying higher wages.

Another possible reason is due to the growing demand for jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree, so students might be transferring out of community colleges or just opting for four-year schools from the beginning.

As for the long-term decline in enrollment, there isn’t a clear answer, but it could also be due to the job market’s strength, even before the pandemic. Unemployment was historically low in 2019, and there were plenty of available jobs that year, according to government data.

Community college remains affordable, but some students just simply aren’t buying into it. The average costs of tuition and fees for local residents at a two-year public community college was $3,860 in the 2022-2023 school year, according to the College Board.

A look at the data

In 2010, there were around 11 million students enrolled at community colleges, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. That shrunk to 6.7 million in the 2021-2022 school year. It’s widely understood that community college enrollment ramped up in the aftermath of the Great Recession because people decided to get an education while riding out the downturn in hopes of landing a good job once the economy began to pick up.

The National Student Clearinghouse reported in October that enrollment in community colleges grew 4.4% this fall, accounting for nearly 60% of the increase in undergraduates this semester. The educational nonprofit said that community colleges are “starting to recover from the pandemic.”

But the keyword there is: “starting.” Community college enrollment nationwide fell sharply in 2021 and 2022.

Gad Levanon, chief economist at The Burning Glass Institute, said the declines in those years might have been due to students who were enrolled in two-year colleges, and would have likely just stuck around and not graduated, simply un-enrolled because they decided to take a job instead, thanks to the hot labor market of recent years.

Job growth in 2023 was driven by employers in health care, government, hospitality, professional services and construction, according to Labor Department data.

There are plenty of jobs that don’t require a degree, and clearly, many workers are happy to take them. But demand for jobs requiring a degree or some form of technical training, which usually pay more, is expected to increase in the future.

Fewer trade workers could lead to fewer services

Here’s the bad news for community colleges: The Georgetown report also argues that the “fastest-growing industries require workers with disproportionately higher education levels compared to industries with slower growth.”

That could be a bad thing for community colleges if this high demand for workers with a bachelor’s degree is expected to only increase moving forward, because there will also be strong demand for workers in the trades.

“There’s a growing number of middle-skills jobs and opportunities, particularly as it relates to infrastructure jobs,” said Nicole Smith, chief economist at Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

“If the number of people who are enrolled in community colleges declines again, that’s worrisome because we might have less and less people who are available for sub-baccalaureate, post-high school types of jobs in healthcare, food, personal services, truck driving and production,” she said, adding that those kinds of jobs account for about a third of all employment in the United States.

Remember, community college enrollment took a beating in recent years excluding 2023.

If there aren’t enough workers willing to be trained to fix electrical wiring, drive trucks hundreds of miles, operate forklifts or assist a dentist with cleaning a patient’s teeth, that could leave employers dealing with labor shortages. Small businesses continue to report a persistent difficulty in finding qualified talent, according to monthly surveys from the National Federation of Independent Business.

Omari Swinton, an economics professor at Howard University in Washington, said stubborn labor shortages could eventually lead to fewer services being offered.

Swinton has seen the effects of pesky labor shortages himself.

“My dentist can’t find a dental assistant, and there are only a couple of schools in Maryland that offer that training and their enrollment is down, so my dentist has had to keep canceling my appointment because they can’t find one,” Swinton said.

“People in an industry like that can ask for more money to work and businesses will have to decide if they’re even willing to pay workers more money because at some point, you can only pay your workers so much before it’s not worth your time and effort to do those tasks anymore,” he said.

College mergers as a solution

Declining enrollment is troubling for community colleges, or any institution of higher education, because it affects their finances. It means less revenue coming from tuition, which could affect campus growth plans, the amount of services offered, the ability to hire more faculty and the list goes on.

If a community college finds itself in a difficult financial situation, merging with another two-year institution could be a viable solution, Levanon said.

That’s exactly what happened in Connecticut this year.

Due to financial woes and declining enrollment, 12 community colleges in Connecticut officially merged this summer to form “Connecticut State Community College” — a plan years in the making that is expected to include more than $40 million in savings.

“This merger has been about ensuring we meet the needs of the students we serve. I am more confident than ever, after this vote of confidence from our accreditor, that we will be in a position to provide better, more accessible educational options and improved services,” Terrence Cheng, president of the Connecticut State College and Universities system, said in June.

That, in and of itself, isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially if it means community colleges are able to remedy budget pressures.