College enrollment has been shrinking, putting pressure on institutions below the elite tier. Although most attention has focused on failures of for-profit colleges and smaller private liberal arts schools, public colleges are not immune from distress. Community college enrollment has been especially weak. A review of federal Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) data from 2011 and 2021 shows that several community colleges have suffered catastrophic enrollment declines over the 10-year period. These institutions may be candidates for consolidation, which would save taxpayer money.
Nationally, total enrollment at two-year public colleges fell 36% from 7.0 million to 4.5 million over the 10 years ending in the fall of 2021. But many community colleges have resisted the downtrend. Enrollment at Cape Fear Community College in Wilmington, North Carolina, rose 41% to 13,059 full-time and part-time students according to the IPEDS data. Other community colleges seeing double-digit enrollment increases included St. Philip’s College and Palo Alto College in San Antonio, Texas, and the College of Western Idaho in Nampa, Idaho. All these institutions benefit from being in regions experiencing strong population growth.
At the other end of the spectrum, over a dozen community colleges experienced 10-year enrollment declines of 60% or more. (See table below)