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Dive Brief: 

  • Nearly half of students who left community college without earning a degree or credential cited work as a major reason why they’re no longer enrolled, according to recent survey data from New America, a left-leaning think tank. 
  • Almost a third, 31%, said they could no longer afford their programs, while 27% said they had lost self-motivation or ambition. Other top reasons included child care responsibilities, the impact of inflation and personal health issues. 
  • Stopped-out community college students faced greater economic hardships in 2023 than they did the prior year, the survey suggests. Sixty percent said they had missed paying important bills, up from 49% in 2022. And 58% said they applied for public benefits in 2023, compared to 49% the year before. 

Dive Insight: 

As the pool of traditional-aged college students shrinks, institutions have increasingly focused on bringing back those who left higher education without finishing their credentials. This population increased to some 40.4 million students in 2021, up from 39 million the prior year, according to a report last April from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. 

However, increased hardships faced by stopped-out community college students could translate to lower shares of these learners reenrolling. Just 36% of stop-outs said they were likely to reenroll in a two-year college, down from 42% who said the same in 2022, according to New America’s survey.

Moreover, many of those who intend to reenroll didn’t plan to do so anytime soon. Almost one-third of respondents, 31%, said they expected to attend college again sometime after 2024. A little over a quarter, 26%, aimed to reenroll for the fall 2024 term. 

Community colleges have recently seen their enrollment increase, with fall 2023 headcounts up 2.6% year over year. Still, community colleges haven’t recovered from sharp enrollment declines during the coronavirus pandemic, according to New America. 

Stopped-out students shared several policies that could encourage them to reenroll. More than half, 54%, indicated they may attend college again if their programs offered free tuition. A slightly lower share, 44%, said free textbooks and course material could nudge them to return to higher education. 

For community college students who remained enrolled, 27% cited self motivation as a reason. Thirteen percent named the desire for further education and 12% pointed to job opportunities. 

Lake Research Partners conducted the survey between Nov. 16 and Dec. 7. It included 1,242 respondents, composed of 644 active community college students and 598 who had left without completing their credentials.

Natalie Schwartz

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