Pandemic Enrollment Declines at Oregon Community Colleges

by Jessica Nelson

December 21, 2021

Enrollment at Oregon higher education institutions stabilized in fall 2021 after a large decline in fall 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout. The enrollment drop affected community colleges much more significantly than four-year colleges and universities, declining 24% since fall 2019. Every Oregon community college had a lower headcount compared with prior to the pandemic, as of the fourth week of fall term. Most state universities also saw declines since 2019, with university enrollment down about 5% statewide.

In-person learning largely resumed in fall 2021, but enrollment didn’t instantly arrive just because campus doors were opened. It’s possible increased job opportunity in the recovery from the pandemic recession is putting people to work fast enough that there’s less reason to return to school. We’re also still in a pandemic, and Oregonians are dealing with everything from limited child care to illness and recovery, to vaccine mandates as they weigh their options. Whatever the personal reasons, 27,000 fewer Oregonians enrolled in community colleges in fall 2021 than in fall 2019, prior to the pandemic.

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 in 2020 was a significant acceleration of that trend. Headcounts didn’t recover that loss in fall 2021. The total student full-time equivalent (FTE) at Oregon community colleges dropped 19% between fall 2019 and fall 2020 and stayed at the lower level in fall 2021. This measure sums the total clock hours in which all students are enrolled, divided by 510 for a full-time equivalent. Total FTE dropped below 20,000 in 2021, down from 34,000 in 2012.

Declines in fall enrollment affected all community colleges, and 11 out of 17 lost more than 20% compared with 2019. The magnitude of some colleges’ enrollment declines since 2019 is startling. Enrollment at three community colleges dropped more than 35%, with enrollment at Clatsop Community College, already one of the smallest colleges in the state, dropping to about half its former enrollment. Another very small college, Oregon Coast Community College, had 40% fewer students enrolled in fall 2021 compared with 2019. Rogue Community College is a mid-size college, and its enrollment dropped 35%.

The largest numeric change in students occurred at the state’s largest community college, Portland Community College, where 8,000 fewer students enrolled this fall than in 2019, a drop of 23%. Lane Community College had 3,000 fewer students this fall, down 30% from fall 2019. Chemeketa, Linn-Benton, and Rogue community colleges all had enrollment declines of more than 2,000 students.
Enrollment Declined More among Mid-Career and Older Students

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. Enrollment dropped even more in 2020-2021, with total headcounts in the first full academic year of the pandemic coming in 32% below the level in 2018-2019. While every age group had a lower headcount in the 2020-2021 academic year than two years prior, 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 by the 2020-2021 year, dropping 20%. The steepest drop was a 60% decline in enrollment among those ages 65 and over, followed by a drop of 48% among those ages 50 to 64. These older students stepped to the sidelines to a greater degree as the pandemic emerged and continued.

The youngest students were also more heavily affected by pandemic changes. Enrollment of high school age students dropped 43%. This reduction in opportunity to excel and to complete some credits at a local community college before graduation may have long-lasting effects on this cohort of teen students. It’s also possible that harm from not pursuing higher education during and just after high school will be alleviated somewhat by today’s abundant job opportunities and the ability to begin careers at elevated wages.
Shorter-term training has 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 26% by the 2020-2021 academic year, to 6,234. The number of associate degrees awarded fell 5% to 12,224.

What Does Declining College Enrollment Mean for the Workforce?

It’s likely that the steep drop in enrollment in 2020 and 2021 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, and the abundance of job opportunities in the labor market as we close out 2021. However, the results of training fewer people now 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 back in 2019, just prior to the pandemic, employers reported 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 the last two years will affect the preparation of the workforce in terms of the number of certificates and degrees received for a couple more years. The quick job recovery in 2021 has offered opportunities, and solid earning potential, for some workers who would otherwise pursue training at a community college. Some pent up demand for training will likely 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 recovery from the pandemic continues, offering new skills and a brighter employment future to students around the state.


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