Community college students face financial obstacles to staying enrolled

Community college enrollment has increased two years in a row, contributing to overall growth in undergraduate enrollment. Yet, it still has not fully recovered from sharp declines during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to data from New America, which has tracked community college enrollment trends since 2020. 

“The growth in Fall 2023 is good news, but in order to regain the level of enrollment seen before the pandemic, community colleges must do more to support their students,” says New America.

The demands of full-time employment, financial hardships, and loss of motivation are obstacles to reenrollment for stopped-out students, according to a 2023 New America survey. The survey, conducted by Lake Research Partners between Nov. 16 and Dec. 7, 2023, explored what’s keeping adults from reenrolling, and which policies community colleges can adopt to encourage adults to return. As of July 2021, the number of adults who stopped out of postsecondary education programs without receiving a degree credential had risen to 40.4 million.

New America reached out to both “continuers”—students who were enrolled in community college anytime between January 2020 and July 2023 and were enrolled as of Fall 2023—and “stop-outs”—those adults who attended community college in the same timeframe but were not enrolled as of Fall 2023. Just 36% of stop-outs said they were very or somewhat likely to reenroll in a public vocational or technical college, community college, or two-year college in the future, down from 42% in 2022. Meanwhile, 57% said they were a little or not at all likely to reenroll, up from 50% in 2022.

A combination of personal commitments and hardships are keeping stop-outs from reenrolling. Nearly half (49%) of stop-outs cited work as a primary reason they were no longer enrolled, an increase from 42% in 2022. Thirty-one percent said they could no longer afford their program, down from 34% in 2022, and 27% said loss of self-motivation or ambition was a major reason they didn’t reenroll—a constant from 2022-23. 

Stopped-out respondents also experienced a variety of financial hardships: 59% said they had fallen behind on a credit card, utility, loan, or other bill in the past year, an increase from 49% in 2022. Fifty-two percent said they applied for public benefits, up nearly 10 percent from 2022, and 48% reported they skipped meals because they didn’t have enough money to buy food. Among stop-outs who care for young children, work, caregiving responsibilities, and lack of college affordability remained top reasons for remaining stopped out. Difficulties balancing coursework and childcare needs were also barriers to remaining enrolled.

Continuers faced similar financial hardships and responsibilities, but self-motivation, a desire for further education, job opportunities, and financial and family reasons were among top reasons they remained enrolled.

Policies that address college affordability might make reenrollment an attractive option for stop-outs. Among stop-outs, 54% said free tuition would encourage them to reenroll, followed by free textbooks and course materials (44%); the ability to afford a program’s tuition (40%); and more institutional support in the form of financial aid, academic and career counseling, and basic needs services (39%).

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