Associate Enrollment is Declining, But Not Everywhere…

November 17, 2022

Declining enrollment is an issue facing community colleges across the country. According to program enrollment data provided to Gray by the National Student Clearinghouse, total enrollment in associate programs fell 10% year-over-year from Spring 2021 to Spring 2022.

But in the midst of the bad news there are some bright spots, both geographically and programmatically, where associate enrollment has increased.

First let’s look at overall associate enrollment by geography.

Largest increases and decreases in associate enrollment by state (Spring 2021 vs 2022)

The bad news is that total enrollment in associate degree programs declined in 44 states and the District of Columbia from Spring 2021 to Spring 2022. Not surprisingly, four of the states with the largest enrollment declines are those with the largest overall populations – namely California, Texas, Florida, and New York. Associate enrollment also declined precipitously in the state of Washington (ranked #13 in population), down by over 26k students, a total drop of 25%.

The good news: enrollment increased in five states, including two of the least populous states in the nation – Wyoming and Montana.  In both of those states, enrollment increases were in the double digits in terms of percentage changes. Enrollment also increased by 5-6% in Iowa, West Virginia, and South Carolina.  An honorable mention goes out to Vermont, where enrollment remained stable year-over-year.

While enrollment drivers are varied, and many are beyond the control of institutions, one dimension colleges can affect is the programs they offer. With this in mind, we took a deeper dive into the data to understand enrollment trends by academic program to see which programs are attracting more students and which are not.

Across all states, programs in STEM, healthcare, and trades comprise the top 10 programs with the largest enrollment gains at the associate level. Computer Science and Cyber Security programs are also on the list of the top 10 bachelor’s programs experiencing year-over-year enrollment growth.

Associate Programs with Largest Enrollment Gains in the US

Now let’s look at which programs are not growing. The two largest associate programs, General Studies and Liberal Arts, both experienced year-over-year enrollment declines on par with or slightly above the national average. Enrollment in ADN programs also dropped in Spring 2022, echoing a decline in enrollment in Registered Nursing programs seen at the bachelor’s and master’s level.

Associate programs with the largest enrollment declines - US

Digging a little deeper, let’s focus on the states where associate enrollment grew. The programs with the largest gains in enrollment are shown in the table below. The mix is somewhat varied, with business programs experiencing the largest growth in enrollment followed by Interdisciplinary Studies, Other (which likely encompass a wide variety of subject areas). General Studies, Health and Wellness, and Psychology round out the top five programs seeing increases in student enrollment in these five states. Interestingly, all of these programs experienced enrollment declines in the other 45 states (and DC), and some of these declines were significant, with enrollment in Business and General Studies programs dropping 12%.

Programs by percentage in enrollment increases and decreases

Now let’s take a peek at programs that had increases in enrollment in the states where overall enrollment declined (or remained stable). Again, we see a growing interest in STEM, healthcare, and trades programs.

states with declining associate enrollment - associate programs with the largest unit increase in enrollment

For community colleges and trade schools, ensuring you are offering high-demand programs is an important and actionable lever to use to attract new students and (hopefully) reverse the recent declines in enrollment.

Mary Ann Romans


Mary Ann creates, defines, and executes the content marketing strategy at Gray, collaborating with the entire team to support our higher education partners through effective communication and provision of critical industry information.

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