Pandemic Enrollment Declines at Oregon Community Colleges

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By Jessica Nelson
State of Oregon Employment Department
Employment Economist

Enrollment at Oregon higher education institutions declined in fall 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic and it’s economic fallout. The enrollment drop affected community colleges much more significantly, declining 23% since fall 2019. Every Oregon community college had a lower headcount compared with last year, as of the fourth week of fall term. Most state universities also saw declines, with university enrollment down about 4% statewide. In addition to the continuing effects of COVID-19, September’s disastrous wildfires likely affected fall enrollment; some of the largest declines in fall enrollment occurred at institutions close to blazes that continued to threaten communities and fill the skies with smoke as the fall term got underway.

These figures are provided by the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission (HECC) for community colleges and universities. For more in-depth information on university enrollment trends, see Damon Runberg’s article Enrollment at Oregon’s Public Universities.

Community college headcount enrollment has been declining for some time, but the plunge this fall was a significant acceleration of that trend. The total student full-time equivalent (FTE) at Oregon community colleges dropped 19% between fall 2019 and fall 2020. This measure sums the total clock hours in which all students are enrolled, divided by 510 for a full-time equivalent. It, too, has been on a slow downward trajectory, with a sharper decline in fall 2020.

Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Meerah Powell reported new details from the Oregon Community College Association (OCCA), showing that the enrollment decline is largely centered in reduced enrollment in career and technical education programs (-25%) and adult basic skills programs (-48%) like GED preparation or English as a second language. “We’re also seeing that with communities of color and systemically marginalized communities in particular, (they’re) not able to access a community college right now,” OCCA Deputy Director John Wykoff said at a recent HECC meeting. While enrollment has dropped across racial and ethnic groups, the steepest declines appeared among Hispanic and Latino students, whose share of enrollment dropped by 1.0 percentage point, and white students, whose share of the student population dropped 1.6 percentage points compared with fall 2019 enrollment.

In a press release covering the fall 2020 enrollment drop, Cam Preus, Executive Director of the OCCA, said, “It paints a very real picture of just how devastating the impacts of COVID-19 and the wildfires have been on our students, and, in turn, our community colleges.”

The magnitude of some colleges’ fall enrollment declines is startling. Enrollment at three community colleges dropped more than 40%, with enrollment at Clatsop Community College, already one of the smallest college in the state, dropping by more than half. Another very small college, Oregon Coast Community College, had 45% fewer students enrolled in fall 2020 compared with a year ago. Rogue Community College is a mid-size college, and its enrollment dropped 41%.

The largest numeric change in students occurred at the state’s largest community college, Portland Community College, where 7,000 fewer students enrolled this fall, a drop of 21 percent. Clackamas Community College had 3,000 fewer students in fall 2020 – their enrollment may have been reduced by the September wildfire activity that had most of the area under various levels of evacuation warnings. Chemeketa Community College had 2,000 fewer students this fall, as did Lane Community College.

Signals from the 2019-2020 Academic Year

Total headcount enrollment dropped 12% in the 2019-2020 academic year as early effects of the pandemic disrupted classrooms and most education moved online in the spring. While every age group had a lower headcount in the 2019-2020 academic year than the prior year, some interesting trends emerged. Students ages 18 to 21, who made up 22% of the 2018-2019 community college student population, saw the smallest decrease in their enrollment in the 2019-2020 year, dropping just 6%. The steepest drop was a 19% decline in enrollment among those ages 50 to 64, followed by a drop of 16% among those ages 65 and over. These older students seem to have stepped to the sidelines to a greater degree as the pandemic emerged.

Shorter-term training appears to have been more significantly impacted by the pandemic than longer-term associate degrees, at least so far. The number of postsecondary certificates granted by Oregon’s 17 community colleges dropped 15% in the 2019-2020 academic year, to 7,138. The number of associate degrees awarded fell 5% to 12,200.

What Does Declining College Enrollment Mean for the Workforce?

It’s likely that the steep drop in enrollment in 2020 is due not to underlying lack of demand for higher education, but due to short-term disruptions amid unprecedented economic and social impacts of the pandemic. However, the results of training fewer people now, amid the fallout from record-shattering job losses in March and April 2020 and the slow jobs recovery since, could have implications for workers and businesses down the road.

Community colleges serve Oregon’s local communities, preparing local students for their next job or to transfer to a university, and developing programs to serve the needs of local and regional employers. In contrast with university enrollment, Oregon’s community colleges are made up almost entirely of resident students. Overall, of the 19,000 completions of postsecondary certificates and associate degrees awarded by Oregon’s community colleges in the 2018-2019 year, just 500 were granted to non-residents. Among bachelor’s degree completions at Oregon’s public universities, one-third of degrees that year went to non-residents.

The community college student population is local – most of those who attend a community college live and plan to stay in the community where they are getting their training. In 2018, economic research firm Emsi partnered with the Wall Street Journal to analyze the migration of alumni from more than 3,700 higher education institutions in the U.S. They found that community college grads tend to stick close to where they were trained. “On average, a student who attends a community college will stay within 300 miles of the college and 61% live within 50 miles of the college.” This contrasts with universities, where Emsi found that 40% of alumni stay within 50 miles of their alma mater.

Community colleges serve a student body that is less likely to fit the traditional student model; they are often older than 25 and either developing in their career or working toward changing careers. In the 2018-2019 academic year, one-third of the community college student population was age 35 or older and one out of six was age 50 or older.  

Employers need workers with the skills developed at Oregon’s community colleges. In responses to the Oregon Employment Department’s Job Vacancy Survey, employers report more difficulty filling vacancies requiring postsecondary training, associate degrees and “other” training or certifications. In 2019, 77% of these vacancies were reported as difficult to fill, compared with 55% of jobs requiring a high school diploma and 57% of vacancies requiring a bachelor or advanced degree.

Some of the most common jobs reported by Oregon employers that would be trained at a local community college include registered nurses, heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers, nursing assistants, dental assistants, electricians, and carpenters. This top list of jobs employers were recruiting for in 2019 heavily represents trades jobs, as community colleges provide the classroom training for the state’s apprenticeship programs, and health care-related jobs. We need workers trained in these fields. An interruption in such training will be felt in increased difficulty filling jobs in a couple of years’ time, as these programs can take two to four years to result in a fully trained worker.

The average starting wages reported by Oregon employers for these openings is also worth mentioning. In 2019, starting wages for vacancies requiring a high school diploma averaged $15.78. Vacancies that required postsecondary training, an associate degree or “other” training or certification paid an average of $25.39. Jobs requiring a bachelor or advanced degree averaged a starting wage of $31.02. There’s a lot of earning power stacked into the training provided at local community colleges. Workers completing certificates and associate degrees go on to earn more money than their high school graduate counterparts, and have lower unemployment rates as well. These workers, and their skills and experience, will continue to be in demand.

We won’t know how the drop in community college enrollment in fall 2020 will affect the preparation of the workforce in terms of the number of certificates and degrees received for a couple more years. It seems unlikely that the sharp enrollment declines of 2020 will persist when restrictions to combat the spread of COVID-19 are eased and in-person instruction resumes more broadly. It remains to be seen how much pent up demand for training will result from delays in individuals’ education plans during the pandemic. It also remains to be seen how budgets and program offerings will be affected by the COVID-19 recession and related budgetary constraints, combined with the decline in enrollment. What we do know is that Oregon’s community colleges will be there as economic recovery continues, offering new skills and a brighter employment future to students around the state.

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