What keeps students enrolled in community colleges? Here’s what they say

As colleges across the country continue to battle enrollment drops, recent research reveals how colleges can keep their students enrolled past their first year.

Enrollment among community colleges across the country has significantly suffered since the pandemic.

The most recent report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center released in May shows that full-time enrollment in community colleges dropped by 11%, or 168,000 students, last spring compared to 2021’s data. The decline marked the second consecutive year enrollment dropped by double digits.

But the narrative is mixed for community colleges throughout the country. Enrollment in community colleges across Tennessee is the lowest it’s been in more than 30 years. On the other hand, several community colleges are reporting an increase in enrollment for the first time in years.

For example, Terra State Community College in Ohio reported an 8.5% increase this school year. In Maine, college leaders attribute the system’s “unprecedented” spike in enrollment to the state’s free tuition program that began this year.

Yet, while enrollment continues to be a challenge for community colleges across the U.S., another enrollment-related question is also arising: What keeps students enrolled? According to a report released this week by CCCSE, a service and research initiative at the University of Texas at Austin, nearly 40% of community college students don’t persist beyond their first year.

The report highlights the “triggers” that contribute to student attrition and how colleges can implement guided pathways to keep students enrolled. Using longitudinal focus groups comprising students from three Texas community colleges, researchers point to several disparities relating to the participants’ first-year experiences.

Key findings

  • For many first-year college students, it’s a confusing and terrifying experience
  • Students reported wanting to receive more information that’s easy to understand, specifically pertaining to processes like registration, orientation and payment.
  • Academic guidance varies for each student. Some reported having an academic plan in place, while others had no idea what courses to take.
  • Students said they’d like more engagement with their professors and peers, but some said they were never given the opportunity.
  • Students who did have the opportunity to participate in success courses, study groups and tutoring understood their value and reported a sense of belonging in their school. Unfortunately, some students said they weren’t aware these services were available.

Overall, participants said connections with others, engaging with instructors, support services and clarity about their academic goals are necessary for helping them persist.

“As the work of guided pathways evolves, it will be important to continue to listen to what students have to say about the things that help them stay enrolled,” said CCCSE Executive Director Linda GarcÁ­a. “Many things happen in students’ lives that colleges have no control over, but if we can widen the safety net by focusing on what students tell us work, we can increase their chances for success.”

Micah Ward
Micah Wardhttp://universitybusiness.com
Micah Ward is a University Business staff writer. He recently earned his master’s degree in Journalism at the University of Alabama. He spent his time during graduate school working on his master’s thesis. He’s also a self-taught guitarist who loves playing folk-style music.

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