March 7, 2022

Does the pandemic’s economic impact demonstrate the importance and viability of community colleges?

It’s clear that higher education unlocks economic stability and social mobility for students, and that community colleges are uniquely positioned to connect communities with pathways to prosperity. In the U.S., bachelor's degree holders out-earn those with a high school credential by 59%, and associate's degree holders out-earn high school credentials by 23% (NCES, 2021). Relatedly, workers with in-demand industry and technical credentials are seeing gains in earnings, —many of which are earned at two year colleges.

Community colleges accomplish this by cultivating multiple pathways for students, including workforce-oriented associate’s degrees, transfer opportunities, and high impact industry-focused programs. Community colleges are positioned to train hundreds of thousands of students, create sector-based training opportunities with in-demand training, and invest in proven approaches like apprenticeships and programs to support underserved communities. Additionally, as institutions continue to innovate to link noncredit credentials to credit-bearing options, the potential for associate’s degree attainment and transfer continue to grow. These potential linkages between labor, industry, and post-secondary education will only continue to highlight the importance of community colleges, and the opportunities they present for communities.

The opportunities posed by increased investments in workforce development and Pell grants come at a pivotal time, as community colleges are still in recovery from the pandemic. The pandemic impacted higher education in dramatic and inconceivable ways, from financial struggles to pedagogical concerns (Floyd, 2021; Sandoval-Lucero, 2020). Within a very short period of time, college campuses alive with learners were found scarce with student populations. Administrators fought financial battles as students dropped out of college altogether, feeling left behind in the shift from face-to-face education and unprepared for fully online education (Mkhize, et al., 2020). Based on a survey by the American Council on Education, 79% of community college presidents reported their institutions experienced a decline in enrollment (Smalley, 2020). As Floyd (2021) stated, a decline in enrollment equated to a decline in funding, which impacted everything from employment to campus resources.

The United States Department of Education (2021) conducted a survey in August 2020 of students who were scheduled to take postsecondary classes in Fall 2020. Of those surveyed, 45% reported a change from in-person to fully online course delivery, while 31% reported class cancellations and 12% indicated taking fewer classes in Fall 2020 than they had originally planned. However, the data from those pursuing associate’s degrees (i.e., largely earned at community colleges) highlighted slightly different data points. Students reported a 43% change from in-person to fully online course delivery, while 34% reported class cancellations, and 13% indicated they would be taking fewer classes in Fall 2020 (United States Department of Education, 2021).

In spite of these circumstances, by the time of this post there were beacons of hope on the horizon. Most institutions were back in session this academic term with both face-to-face and online course offerings, and college campuses were alive with bustle once more (United States Department of Education, 2021). The scenery looked different with students wearing masks throughout campus, but community colleges were back in session. Revenue again began to increase, which meant campus employment and campus resources did as well (United States Department of Education, 2021). The community college, always an open door of opportunity for so many, continued.

It’s unsurprising to see these enrollment declines, knowing that community colleges serve communities that have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic (CCRC, 2021). Historically, as unemployment rises so does community college enrollment, and, for the first time in recent memory, that is not the case. The question that exists now is: How do two-year colleges reengage communities, clarify their value proposition, and pivot to accommodate new expectations from learners? Our team here at the Center for Advancing Learning (CAL) will explore these questions by reflecting on:

  • How two-year colleges can build pathways to quality paying jobs, including stackable credentials and strong transfer options
  • Potential expansions in Pell grants and eligibility
  • Addressing barriers that impact access and equity
  • Connecting workforce learning to credit-bearing options

Community colleges often serve as the core education, workforce, and community enrichment hub for a region, making their continued success critically important to the quality of life in thousands of communities. Here at the Center for Advancing Learning (CAL), our commitment is to advancing conversations, research, and resources that help community colleges thrive while drawing attention to larger, systematic changes that will open new doors for learners and institutions.


National Center for Education Statistics. (2021) Annual earnings by educational attainment.

Community College Research Center. (2021). Behind the numbers: How COVID has changed students’ plans for community college.

Floyd, D. (2021). 2020, The Year None of Us Predicted: COVID-19 and Community Colleges. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 45, 1–7.

Sandoval-Lucero, E. (2020). Community Colleges, HBCUs, HSIs, and Higher Education in the Time of COVID-19: An Interview with Dr. Mordecai Brownlee. About Campus., 25(5), 4–10.

U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics, table 311.15. Retrieved February 9, 2021, from