Can Scholarships and Emergency Aid Fix Two-Year College Enrollment?

For millions of students, two-year colleges seem like a perfect fit. Community colleges, vocational-technical institutions and trade schools allow students to pursue valuable higher-education credits more cheaply, flexibly and closer to home than the majority of four-year universities—and they can be a lifeline for working parents, older students seeking a career change and high schoolers getting an early start on college. 

Despite the benefits, though, enrollment at America’s community and technical colleges has been declining for more than a decade, and hasn’t recovered from a huge drop during the COVID pandemic. From a peak of 7 million students in 2010, enrollment dropped to 5.3 million students in 2018—and then just 4.4 million in 2021 and 2022.  

As the Seattle Times reported last year in partnership with the Hechinger Report, “Even though community colleges are far cheaper than four-year schools — published tuition and fees last year averaged $3,860, versus $39,400 at private and $10,940 at public four-year universities, with many states making community college free and President Joe Biden proposing free community college nationwide — consumers are abandoning them in droves.” 

So why are two-year students leaving, and what can we do to help? 

A perfect storm of factors 

That article also identifies a number of factors contributing to the decline: 

  • Under-funded academic and financial advising offices that leave students unprepared when basic issues arise 
  • A job market with higher-than-average entry-level wages 
  • An increasing number of jobs that were once open to associate’s degree holders now requiring a bachelor’s degree 

The last item leads to significant frustration: “While four out of five students who begin at a community college say they plan to go on to get a bachelor’s degree, only about one in six of them actually manages to do it. That’s down by nearly 15% since 2020, according to the [National Student Clearinghouse].” 

Compounding the difficulty, these factors are disproportionately impacting already-vulnerable cohorts of students. More than half of community college students are receiving Pell Grant or other federal, state or institutional financial aid; half of all Hispanic college students and 40% of all Black undergraduates are community college enrollees; nearly 30% are the first generation in their family to attend college.  

All available data indicates that these groups face an uphill battle toward a degree, and that battle only gets tougher if they don’t see community college as an option (or even a first step). 

Even with cheaper tuition, money matters 

Two-year schools may be a great value in many cases, but that doesn’t mean students don’t face financial stress. Sixty-eight percent of community college enrollees are also members of the workforce, and an alarming number report suffering from food insecurity (29%) and housing insecurity (14%). For those who aren’t worried about the roof over their head or their next meal, there’s still the matter of balancing work, school and family—and for those with basic needs concerns, it’s all too easy to find the college dream derailed. 

A Chronicle of Higher Education deep-dive into an innovative support program at MATC, a technical school in Milwaukee, provides a real-life look at the scope of the issue: “From 2000 to 2021, the average unmet financial need of college students receiving aid in Wisconsin increased by 135.6 percent, adjusted for inflation, according to a recent report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum. Students attending the state’s technical colleges have an average unmet need of more than $8,000 a year.” 

Community colleges can be a low-cost lifeline for those looking to further their education and improve their job prospects. But when even those prices outpace students’ ability to pay, something more needs to be done. 

How scholarships—large and small—can help 

The Chronicle article above outlines two important support initiatives for MATC students: a “last dollar” scholarship program that supplements students’ federal and state aid to cover their unmet need gap, and an on-demand emergency aid program with support and funding from Believe in Students, to help quickly when unexpected costs throw student lives into disarray.  

And, while these programs rely on targeted philanthropic gifts and incredibly dedicated volunteers, they provide a model for the ways scholarship sponsors can immediately address the two-year college enrollment crisis.  

Private scholarships are uniquely suited to help students who face funding gaps even if they’ve received Pell grants and aid from their school. By targeting students who are facing unmet need, scholarship dollars can have the biggest and most efficient possible impact.  

Scholarships can also help address unique pain points like the difficulty of transferring from two-year to four-year school. For example, the PepsiCo S.M.I.L.E. Scholarship, administered by Scholarship America, is geared specifically to community college students who want to continue their education at a four-year university; recipients get two years of scholarship aid plus mentoring and career-focused opportunities from PepsiCo. 

The impact of scholarships can also be boosted by adding an emergency aid component, ensuring that students who have their tuition needs covered can also access funds to keep them on track when facing financial setbacks. At Scholarship America, we’ve worked in the emergency aid field for nearly two decades, and we work with partners to scale the efficiency and effectiveness of their emergency aid dollars—making those small grants a big contributor to keeping community college students enrolled. 

The community college enrollment crisis is a growing challenge, and one that threatens workforce and talent pipeline development for all kinds of employees. If you’re ready to provide scholarships for community college students and work toward a solution, get in touch with our scholarship management services experts. 

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