One of the principal challenges facing higher education is the decline in enrollment. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated a gradual slide in matriculation that started in the early 2010s. According to the latest figures from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, 900,000 fewer undergraduate students enrolled in college in fall 2023 compared to 2019. Though the numbers improved slightly from 2022 to 2023, enrollment is still six percent below its pre-pandemic level.

Public community colleges have borne the brunt of these enrollment declines. While enrollment in four-year colleges dropped two percent between 2019 and 2023, the number of students on two-year college campuses plunged nearly 13 percent.

Higher education advocates have traditionally touted community colleges as a cheaper path to a bachelor's degree. The thinking goes that students can complete their first two years of postsecondary education at a community college—often for little or no tuition after scholarships—and then transfer to a four-year university to complete their degree.

But this aspiration doesn’t work out for most students. Just 16 percent of students who start at a community college aiming for a bachelor's degree actually earn one. Students suffer from poor advising and often cannot transfer their community college credits to a four-year university, let alone apply those credits to a major. Many grow frustrated and drop out of college entirely rather than spend more time and money repeating those courses at a four-year school.

Students seem to have realized the false promise of the community college transfer pathway. At two-year colleges with a focus on transfer to four-year schools, enrollment has dropped 20 percent since 2019.

But hope is not lost for the community college sector. While community colleges focused on bachelor's degree transfer have suffered in the wake of the pandemic, those with a more vocational orientation have begun to prosper. Despite an initial drop in enrollment, two-year schools with a high vocational program focus saw enrollment increase by 100,000 in the last year. Vocational community colleges now enroll four percent more students than they did in 2019.

Students are increasingly interested in programs at community colleges that will help them get jobs. Two-year programs in computer science saw 23,000 more students in 2023 relative to 2019, according to Clearinghouse data. Other two-year programs which added students include vehicle maintenance and repair (+9,000), electrical and power transmission installation (+8,000), licensed practical nursing (+4,000), and precision metal working (+2,000). FREOPP’s analysis finds such programs typically deliver a handsome increase in wages for graduates.

Community colleges looking to arrest this enrollment slide should follow the example of schools that emphasize vocational programs. Students consistently tell pollsters their main reason for going to college is to improve their career prospects. If colleges want to entice students back to campus, they’ll need to start delivering.