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Community College Enrollment Trends to Watch – 2022 Guide

by Sirley Carballo · Jan 17, 2022

In March 2020, the familiar landscape of community college enrollment made a complete shift. What was once a predictable process transformed into an effort to keep remote learning students engaged and enrolled—even in the midst of a global pandemic.

Nearly two years later, college enrollment data continues to illustrate major changes in higher education. As system and college leaders, it’s critical to know and understand which trends are most important as we collectively begin a new chapter and help more students stay enrolled.

Keep reading to learn which community college enrollment trends are most likely to affect your school community and student numbers this academic year.

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The current state of U.S. college admissions

It should come as no surprise that college admissions numbers in the United States have changed with the shift to distance and virtual learning in higher education. 

While many regions have seen declining admissions numbers since the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s important to understand what other factors could be at play. 

Enrollment at colleges and universities has declined

First, the most significant trend around the country is that admissions numbers at colleges and universities (of all sizes) have declined since before the pandemic. 

What’s more telling, however, is that this decline isn’t consistent at every type of institution or level of degree. Community college enrollment is down the most, but graduate school enrollment numbers have actually increased over the past year and a half.

In order to tackle enrollment challenges, leaders must understand where enrollment drops are creating the most concerning problems for broader campus initiatives.

Minorities and marginalized groups are at risk

Another trend that’s important for community college enrollment concerns high-risk populations. Current community college data shows that minorities and marginalized groups are the students most affected by a downward trend in enrollment. (Minority data is also similar at four year colleges and institutions.)

This also encompasses first-generation college students or those that come from communities with high poverty rates, including low income students. 

Low income students may face additional roadblocks that can make it more difficult for them to seek out admissions and financial aid opportunities, submit new applications, or take proactive enrollment steps. Support services are essential for helping these students navigate the enrollment process.

Cost and lack of support play a role

The admissions process isn’t exempt from the challenges that already exist in society at large. For example, rising costs and lack of support from qualified personnel make it more difficult for incoming students to move through the typical enrollment hoops. 

As a result, more students may become discouraged and abandon their attempts to enroll at a new community college or university.

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Are fewer students planning to attend college in 2022?

While it’s difficult to predict exactly how many students plan to attend college in a given year, enrollment data from sources like the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) indicate that the number of new college applications are at an all-time low. Using this information, experts predict a continued downturn in admissions numbers.

What does this mean for community colleges and other institutions? College professionals and campus leaders must prioritize activities such as:

  • Strategic planning
  • Budgetary and financial reviews
  • Retention strategies
  • Competitive recruitment initiatives

Although community colleges tend to have less private funding for these steps, it's more important than ever to use state-sponsored grants and other sources of funding to combat the overall decline in undergraduate enrollment. 

Applications or students—what’s more important?

Although incoming applications matter, the number of actual students has a greater impact on a college’s longevity and continued success. 

The campus community isn’t made up of applicants; instead, it’s composed of engaged and productive students who desire to play a role in the academic, social, and professional community. 

In the same way that businesses must convert prospects to actual customers, community colleges must focus on converting applicants to actual students. Because the college admissions process is much more relational, there are many interpersonal factors and decisions that can change the outcomes for new students.

7 Community College Enrollment Trends for 2022

If you work at a community college (particularly as part of the admissions team), you should head into the new year with optimism and purpose. 

With the right mindset, tools, and strategy, you can change the trajectory of your college’s admissions roadmap for 2022 and increase the number of students enrolled. Consider the following trends as you plan your goals and engage with prospective students. 

1. Prioritize student-driven experiences

Admissions and enrollment advisors must be mindful of modern expectations. Today’s students want an experience that feels connected and true to who they are as an individual, particularly in an age of online classes and remote instruction.

It’s not enough to simply sell your college’s offerings. Instead, you must focus on providing multi-channel experiences that expand access to enrollment information and meet students where they are. 

This is a new era of college enrollment, and it requires planning, empathy, and a student-first approach to admissions tasks.

2. Require personalized marketing campaigns

Instead of treating every student the same, community colleges should produce 1:1 marketing messages that resonate with each individual.

Because students experience these tailored messages in other areas of their lives, they may expect the same level of personalization from colleges when it comes to enrollment. In practice, this looks like:

  • Connecting with students on their social media platforms of choice
  • Making it easier for students to communicate with admissions officers
  • Designing websites and marketing materials with user experience (UX) in mind

3. Proactively leverage analytics and insights to drive better decisions

In a challenging enrollment landscape, you can’t simply produce new campaigns and hope to see what sticks. To truly stand out, your team must be strategic and use any available data.

A comprehensive admissions CRM platform makes it easier to look at past and current insights and to predict future numbers. Student-centric data can also ensure that your major decisions prioritize the student journey, instead of simply showcasing the school’s features and benefits. 

4. Use video strategy to accelerate new campaigns

Video marketing continues to be a prominent force in today’s marketing campaigns. This trend is important for college enrollment or admissions teams that want to stay current in the midst of highly worrying numbers.

Video is an engaging way for community colleges to stay in touch with prospective and current students alike. It also contributes to the personalized approach to student connection mentioned previously.

When it comes to video development, don’t be afraid to get creative. Use video across your college’s social media platforms, in targeted ads, within your website or landing pages, and even in email messages to new students. Multiple video touchpoints add a human element to your admissions goals.

5. Make hybrid events a core part of the mix

As many colleges and universities transition back to in-person instruction, students are looking for choices and flexibility. Hybrid events offer the best of both worlds by allowing recruitment staff the opportunity to engage with students physically and from a distance.

Community colleges serve a vital role in the local community, so take advantage of local and regional educational opportunities, business relationships, internship possibilities, and much more.

6. Do “more with less” on your admissions and enrollment teams

One of the hard truths of modern admissions and enrollment is that staff must creatively maximize resources and time to increase total enrollment. Current challenges may include:

  • Reduced staff
  • Tighter budgets
  • Physical restrictions (due to health protocols)
  • Reduced student interest or new pipeline

Each of these challenges implies that admissions teams must overcome certain roadblocks in order to achieve success. Regardless of what resources you have on hand, mentally prepare to tackle modern problems in new and unexpected ways. 

Although enrollment numbers have always been important to college growth, a post-pandemic admissions experience means looking at problems from new and innovative angles.

7. Reduce friction and enable students to pull information

With limited physical interactions between students and admissions staff, students must have opportunities to access required information when they need it. In many ways, the pandemic forced many colleges to modernize or update existing processes. This includes submitting required documentation, obtaining approvals, and updating personal records.

Moving ahead in 2022, colleges should continue to make these changes to reduce friction and reduce communication hurdles. These efforts may contribute to higher enrollment rates and greater student retention.

Element451 helps customers avoid the drop

Despite enrollment declines, Element451’s customers largely avoid the downfalls and decreases that many other institutions have experienced. Additionally, Element451 customers also report fewer problems with their overall applicant pools and fewer concerns about under-represented populations or marginalized groups.

The data clearly shows that modernized enrollment and engagement solutions really work. Positive impacts aren’t just experienced at the student level, but staff and campus leaders can enjoy less frustration and stress by using a powerful platform that delivers credible results.

This year, make sure that you’re on top of new college enrollment trends. Book your Element451 demo today to create a student-centered enrollment process that allows your institution to thrive.


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