46% Earn Bachelor’s Degree within 6 Years, Community Colleges Remain Viable Option

Before the pandemic, community colleges have been a popular option for students instead of going to a private college or university. However, enrollment has been dropping, and the pandemic has worsened it. This article peeks into the current state of community colleges and some projections.

Key Points at a Glance

  • A community college is an education institution offering programs that prepare students immediately for their careers.
  • According to an Open Doors Report, the enrollment numbers topped in 2016, before failing in 2020 due to the pandemic.
  • Community colleges took the hardest hit, plummeting 9.5 percent in enrollments in 2020.


  • Historically, the education sector expects community colleges to get the bulk of enrollment after an economic downturn, providing domestic and international students practical educational solutions.

What is a community college?


A community college — once pertained to as junior colleges — is an educational institution that offers programs and training that prepare students immediately for their careers. Primarily speaking, these schools are public institutions offering tertiary education.


Community colleges are more focused on serving the community they belong to, offering students community programs that cater to the general job-seeking populace. They are also seen as a “gateways” into four-year universities, should students decide to pursue further education.


In the United States, 30 out of 50 states practice a statewide guaranteed transfer of an associate degree. Meaning, students who have earned associate degrees from community colleges proceed to a four-year university as a junior.


International education at community colleges


In recent years when travel and tourism have become more and more accessible to international students based in different countries, seeing international students in community colleges is definitely becoming the norm.

This can be seen in the latest Open Doors Report of international students enrolled in community colleges in the United States from 1999 to 2020. The enrollment numbers topped in 2016, reaching 96,472 international students, before ranging, and then taking a tumble in 2020 presumably because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Down but not out

The U.S. education sector suffered huge losses during the pandemic, and community colleges recorded the biggest enrollment deficit for the year. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, all higher education sectors experienced an enrollment decline in 2020:


  • Community colleges dropped 9.5 percent
  • Public four-year universities dropped .6 percent
  • Private, nonprofit institutions dropped .8 percent
  • Private, for-profit schools dropped 1.5 percent

There are plenty of factors that impact community college enrollments. For instance in the State of California, experts believe that because of the state’s stagnant or declining population, college enrollments will have to come from adults who still do not hold a college degree. Enrollments for its K-12 system are also in decline, and that impacts enrollment numbers.


In the midst of an uncertain educational landscape, community colleges serve as funnels which give students an opportunity to get a degree which could eventually lead to them securing a career in this economy. 


In a February 2022 report, data showed that adult learners (older than 24) showed the largest completion rate increases, at 37.9 percent, particularly at the public four-year and community college sectors.


Community colleges also contribute to growth in college persistence numbers. Forty six percent of community college students who transfer to a four-year college earn a bachelor’s degree within the six-year time frame.


Community colleges could use the major boost in a post-pandemic society. These institutions are considered by many for their affordability and practicality, as compared to going to a state or private university. It is only a matter of time until domestic and international students contribute to the growing diversity in community colleges.


A Re-Emerging Trend


Community colleges will be playing a very important role in the re-emergence of higher education. However, they will need to work on themselves first, making their campuses sustainable.


Since seeing a growth in the ‘60s under postwar expansionist policies, community colleges have been evolving at a healthy pace. In the ‘70s, the economic downturn led more students to consider vocational programs at community colleges. In the 2000s, the globalization and internationalization of community colleges had become inevitable, although a work in progress.


Today, experts are in agreement that, most especially in a post-pandemic environment, the high costs of tuition and the rising student loans are sure factors for domestic and international students alike to consider a community college once again. Apart from their affordability, community colleges actually offer varied benefits to students such as smaller classes, better support, flexible class schedules and credit transfers to universities, among others. 




Some look at community colleges as if they play a complementary role in the higher education sector. They are seen as alternatives or fallbacks. The truth is, community colleges have the potential to serve a larger demographic and empower and equip a future workforce.

Historically, the general population looks to community colleges during an economic downturn, and the education sector as well expects community colleges to have the bulk of enrollment due to their financial and logistical advantages over private institutions. Before the decade ends, two-year postsecondary degree-granting institutions enrollment numbers are projected to see slight increase.  (SUNEETHA QURESHI)

MSM President - Global

Suneetha has worked for 15 years in the international education sector and 25 years overall, including her work for other industries. As president of MSM, she fortifies its business development outreach globally, particularly in the face of MSM’s foray into edtech-based recruitment via MSM Unify. She preserves the premium, value-adding services provided to each MSM partner institute, including dedicated teams on the ground, agent management, lead generation and inquiry management, application pre-screening, and student and parent support through pioneering pre-departure briefing sessions.

She has an impeccable track record of successfully launching the representative offices in Asia and Africa of many North American and European higher education institutions. Her key strengths include hiring, training, and developing teams as evidenced by the successful results of the dedicated in-country college and university client teams.


Suneetha also has taken the lead in developing several initiatives at MSM, including building robust standard operating procedures, the Rise ‘n Shine team engagement platform, and the organization’s data analytics and audit segments.

Data sources:

Nadworny, E. (2021, October 26) College enrollment plummeted during the pandemic. This fall, it’s even worse. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2021/10/26/1048955023/college-enrollment-down-pandemic-economy


Statewide Guaranteed Transfer of an Associate Degree (2020, February). Education Commission of the States. Retrieved from https://ecs.secure.force.com/mbdata/MBquest3RTA?Rep=TR2003


International Students Community Colleges, Total Students, 1999/00-2020/21 (2021). Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange. Retrieved from https://opendoorsdata.org/data/international-students/community-colleges-total-students/


Current Term Enrollment Estimates (2021, June 10) National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Retrieved from https://nscresearchcenter.org/current-term-enrollment-estimates/


State Population Dips to 39.5 Million Per New State Demographic Report (2021, May 7). Department of Finance California. Retrieved from https://dof.ca.gov/wp-content/uploads/Forecasting/Demographics/Documents/E-1_2021PressRelease.pdf


Untapped Opportunity: Understanding and Advancing Prospects for Californians without a College Degree (2021, February). California Completes. Retrieved from https://californiacompetes.org/assets/general-files/Untapped-Opportunity-Report-final.pdf 


What’s Next for California’s K–12 Enrollment? (2021, December 9). PPIC. Retrieved from https://www.ppic.org/blog/whats-next-for-californias-k-12-enrollment/


Completing College National and State Reports With New Longitudinal Data Dashboard (2022, February 3) National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Retrieved from https://nscresearchcenter.org/completing-college/


Community College Statistics. Think Impact. Retrieved from https://www.thinkimpact.com/community-college-statistics/


Dickler, J. (2020, April 22) Community colleges could see a surge in popularity amid Covid-19. CNBC. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2020/04/22/students-consider-starting-out-at-community-college-amid-coronavirus.html


College Costs: FAQs. College Board. Retrieved from https://bigfuture.collegeboard.org/pay-for-college/college-costs/college-costs-faqs


Kinzie, J. (2004, September) Fifty Years of College Choice: Social, Political and Institutional Influences on the Decisionmaking Process. Lumina. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED484237.pdf


Levin, J. (2002) In Education and in Work: The Globalized Community College. The Canadian Journal of Higher Education. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ661238.pdf


Dickler, J. (2020, March 17) Coronavirus may drive more high school seniors to in-state public colleges. CNBC. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/17/coronavirus-will-cause-more-high-school-seniors-to-pick-local-colleges.html


Duffin, E. (2021, May 5) Enrollment in U.S. 2-year postsecondary institutions, by institution type 1970-2029. Statista. Retrieved from https://www.statista.com/statistics/236467/enrollment-in-us-2-year-postsecondary-institutions-by-institution-type/


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