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Still, this semester’s one-year dip of 1.6 percent in total enrollment across the state’s community colleges is an improvement over the one-year drop of 6 percent in fall 2020, according to a new report the Iowa Board of Education is set to discuss this week.
Iowa’s 2021 losses also fare better than national average losses, showing community college enrollment across the nation slid 5.6 percent this fall over last and 14 percent since 2019.
“Just like we saw last year, it’s again the community colleges that are taking the brunt of the declines — and these are the students who would normally be enrolling in droves during the recession, and then we expect them to go back to work when the job market improves,” Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, told reporters last month.
But COVID-19, given its complex nature, did not have that effect of driving community college enrollment up when the economy veers down. The virus also muted the effects of any boom of workers from the 2008 recession.
“It’s like the entire crest of that wave got swallowed up by the pandemic,” Shapiro said. “And what we’re seeing here is two troughs, one after the other.”
Not every Iowa community college, however, lost enrollment this fall, including Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, reporting a 2.7 percent year-over-year increase, the report said.
With 12,607 total students, Kirkwood still remains 11 percent below its pre-pandemic count of 14,182 in fall 2019. But it reported a bigger percentage increase than 10 of the other Iowa community colleges this fall after taking the biggest hit in the state last year at 13.4 percent.
The community college reporting the most growth this fall — at 10 percent — was Iowa Central in Fort Dodge, reversing a nearly 9 percent loss last year. Des Moines Area Community College, which had the smallest drop last fall of under 1 percent, saw the biggest loss this year at 11 percent.
Iowa’s community college total enrollment loss this year would have been steeper were it not for a 3.4 percent increase in “joint enrollment” — that is, when high school students take community college credits as well.
With a joint enrollment total of 35,634, that group now accounts for nearly 44 percent of all community college enrollment in Iowa — a percentage that’s been growing annually.
Excluding joint enrollment numbers from Iowa’s total community college counts, the schools collectively would have seen a 5.2 percent enrollment drop this year from last and a 12.4 percent enrollment drop from 2019.
To that point, the new community college report shows the percentage of new students — excluding those still in high school under joint enrollment agreements — fell significantly this fall. New students made up 20 percent of all enrollment, down 10 percent from fall 2020. New enrollments straight from high school accounted for just 8 percent of the total enrollment, down 17 percent from last year.
Those losses are the kind that trickle out to Iowa’s public universities, which also have been losing students in recent years — losses worsened by the pandemic.
“Transfer students from community colleges have continued to be a challenge — again, this coming from a drop in Iowa community college enrollment,” Jason Pontius, the Iowa Board of Regents associate chief academic officer, told the board earlier this month.
“Sometimes when you see Iowa community college enrollment numbers, they're showing their total enrollment. It's important to look at their numbers not including (joint) enrollment students,” he told the regents. “Because 30- to 50 percent of the enrollment at our community colleges are actually high school students who are taking college classes, and not students that are going to be transferring to us — right away at least.”
Combined community college transfers to the regent schools reached 1,877 this fall, down 2.5 percent from last fall’s 1,925; 14 percent from fall 2019’s 2,171; and 28 percent from fall 2013, when the total transfer tally was 2,611.
Despite the losses and pandemic challenges — plus demographic changes and increasing competition for students across the higher education landscape — Iowa’s Board of Education is predicting an enrollment uptick for fall 2022 to a total for community colleges of between 81,830 and 83,269.
“However,” according to the report, “the actual enrollment for fall 2022 might fall out of this estimated range due to the uncertainty of COVID-19.”
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