Community college enrollment plummets amid pandemic, wildfires and struggling economy

By Rob Manning (OPB)
Nov. 14, 2020 3:43 p.m. Updated: Nov. 14, 2020 4:40 p.m.

Oregon community college enrollment fell by almost one-quarter from 2019 to 2020, according to official numbers released Friday.

Oregon’s community colleges are nearly one quarter smaller this fall than they were a year ago, according to new enrollment figures released Friday by the state’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission. The overall headcount of students fell by 23% across the state’s network of community colleges, with the number of full-time equivalent students dropping at a similar rate.

Students walk across Portland Community College's Southeast campus on a rainy day in December 2015.

Students walk across Portland Community College's Southeast campus on a rainy day in December 2015.

Bryan M. Vance / OPB


While community colleges often withstand economic recessions better than other higher education institutions, with workers seeking job-training courses offered at the two-year schools, that has not been the case in 2020. The community college numbers show steeper declines than what public universities started acknowledging a few weeks ago in their unofficial numbers. Oregon State University officially grew by 1.8%, but it was an outlier, with other public colleges losing enrollment, including an 18.3% enrollment drop at Southern Oregon University. But community colleges fared even worse.


Officials said the declines were shared across the state at all 17 of Oregon’s community college systems, but they were worst at Clatsop Community College on the north coast, where enrollment was cut in half — a 52.8% drop, according to HECC figures. Portland Community College, the state’s largest postsecondary institution, saw enrollment fall by 21.2%, or by more than 7,000 students.

In a statement Friday afternoon, the Higher Education Coordinating Commission’s director of research and data, Amy Cox, noted that the state’s two-year colleges were seeing the effects of an economic downturn.

“Overall, the overall reductions at the public universities are thankfully not as high as many anticipated, but the community colleges reductions are steep, and likely reflect the hardships so many students and families are facing,” Cox said, emphasizing that students should consider restarting their college careers when they’re able to, and the opportunity to return will "be open to them.”

Cam Preus, executive director of the Oregon Community Colleges Association, said the numbers were expected, but seeing them show up in official charts was still “sobering.”

“It paints a very real picture of just how devastating the impacts of COVID-19 and the wildfires have been on our students, and, in turn, our community colleges,” Preus said in a statement from the association.

Community college officials said wildfires may have played an outsized role in the enrollment decline, with fewer students showing up in parts of southern Oregon, the Willamette Valley and the coast, where wildfires burned. The enrollment drop was most pronounced among Latino and white students, though it was shared among all student racial and ethnic groups.


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