Can High Schoolers Save the Community College?

Even as total community college enrollment has fallen, the number of dual-enrolled high school students has grown. Is it enough to sustain the long-suffering two-year institution?

Liam Knox

November 22, 2022

When the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center released its annual enrollment report last month, the outlook was fairly bleak. Enrollments had declined almost across the board—at lower rates than during the COVID-19 pandemic, but still defying predictions that they would begin to rebound.

One bright spot was community colleges, which, after a nearly 10 percent enrollment decline during the pandemic, saw a slight increase for the 2021–22 academic year. Many experts attribute that largely to one factor: dual enrollment among high school students grew by 11 percent.

The number of high school students enrolled in community colleges had been growing at a healthy clip for years before the pandemic; in 2019, dual-enrollment students accounted for 16 percent of community college students nationwide, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education. That number remained relatively steady throughout the 2020–21 and 2021–22 academic years, when general enrollment took a steep dive, according to NSC data.

Now, it’s become increasingly clear that high schoolers are bailing out many two-year institutions that have taken on water. While total community college enrollment has declined every year since 2010, students under 18 are the only age group that has increased each year during that time period, according to a report from the American Association of Community Colleges.

“The growth of dual enrollment seems to be almost propping up new student growth for community colleges,” said John Fink, a senior research associate at the Community College Research Center of Teachers College at Columbia University. “Older adult student enrollment is declining and dual enrollment is holding steady, so you’re just going to see a larger share of enrollment from high school students … It’s going to be a really important constituency for community colleges to think about as part of their institutional strategy.”

Amy Williams, executive director of the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships, one of the leading national accreditors for concurrent and dual-enrollment programs, said she’s seen the growing popularity of dual enrollment reflected in an explosion of applications for program accreditation.

From ‘Programs of Privilege’ to Equity Drivers

Williams said she’s seen a “paradigm shift” in recent years as institutions move from offering advanced classes for academic highfliers to using dual enrollment as a way to expand access to higher education for underserved groups.

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Executive Director of Homeschooling for College Credit

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