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Community college education is critical to our country’s overall educational landscape. According to the most recent data, community college students accounted for 36% of all undergraduate enrollment — and roughly 40% of these students identified as Black and Latino. These colleges provide accessible, career-relevant education that trains highly skilled workers for in-demand industries — promoting opportunities that lift up not only the students, but also entire communities and regions throughout the country.

But community college enrollment numbers have been on the decline for more than a decade, while stop-out rates continue to rise. Even more unfortunately, the steepest enrollment declines are coming from first-time students — especially adult learners and students of color. Now more than ever, community colleges need to focus on creative ways to boost enrollment and encourage re-enrollment.

The importance of community college education

With community colleges often serving as anchors of their communities, they also play an important role in future-proofing the workforce. An economy dependent on the development and growth of highly skilled workers means dependence on each state’s community college system to produce that workforce. As the economy and job markets evolve, the demands on our community colleges evolve too. Developing and implementing targeted re-enrollment strategies to bring adult learners back to school will help ensure that these schools have the ability to keep up with the demands of our ever-changing world.

Reversing the downward trend

As community college education becomes more critical now than ever, the decreasing enrollment numbers at community colleges are troubling. While it seemed that the pandemic would trigger a much-needed enrollment boost at community colleges, following both an established pattern of enrollment increase during times of economic downturns and an emotional response of students staying closer to home, that did not prove to be the case. Instead, community college enrollments plummeted, both in 2020 and 2021, accelerating the decade-long spiral. "The startling enrollment declines and disruption of the past two years have created new barriers to college access and enrollment that few would have imagined. We can't let these reverse the hard-earned progress toward improving access, equity, and completion in higher education," said Ruth Bauer White, president of InsideTrack.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, there are more than 39 million adults nationwide who enrolled in college but left without receiving their degree or certificate. This devastating number has climbed from 36 million, which was reported in 2019. In the wake of the largest enrollment decline in decades, a growing number of states, institutions, systems and nonprofits have launched campaigns to re-engage former students. In an effort to support community colleges in this dire moment, InsideTrack has been exploring ways community colleges can refocus their re-enrollment efforts, support enrolled students so they can stay and complete, and work to implement federal funding to provide sustainable, long-lasting student support.

Re-enrollment: Pushing reset on the learner journey

As part of committed efforts to attract, re-enroll and support stopped-out learners, InsideTrack reached out to 27,000 students through projects at 25 partner institutions, including several community colleges, in 2021. One such partnership was with Wake Technical Community College, North Carolina’s largest community college that serves more than 70,000 adults annually. Dedicated success coaches supported students through the re-enrollment process to help them resume their studies, develop a plan for finishing their degrees or credentials, and ultimately improve their long-term economic prospects. With the goal of helping these students balance the complex demands of work, family, and school responsibilities, the coaching continued on through the first semester, or longer in many cases, to ensure students stayed on track.

Through capacity building, we also worked closely with student support staff and leadership at several community colleges to train them on InsideTrack coaching methodology, with the goal of being able to reach exponentially more stopped-out students through their own coaching programs.

Re-enrollment case study results
  • 15.6% student return rate
  • 1.5x more likely to return if coached by InsideTrack
  • 383% ROI in just three months

These results from our partnership with Wake Tech show that re-enrollment programs are effective as a way to help community college students re-engage and ultimately fulfill their aspirations in higher education – and, eventually, in the workforce.


Retention: Helping students continue their educational journey

Illinois Central College (ICC) is a community college that supports one in four graduating high school seniors in their region and helps drive educational and economic opportunity. Committed to supporting the academic and personal development of all ICC students throughout their educational journey, ICC leadership looked to InsideTrack for help implementing two major student support goals: boosting their retention rates through direct coaching and redesigning their advising department to offer holistic student support.

ICC’s partnership with InsideTrack involved two phases over the course of four years. In phase one, direct one-on-one coaching for 400 ICC students was implemented to help them stay on track to degree completion. Phase two provided a more sustainable, long-term solution for ICC. It involved a complete redesign of ICC’s advising department, with ongoing training from InsideTrack to help ICC integrate coaching methodology into their student support. Ultimately, the partnership helped unlock the potential of ICC students and staff by enhancing the school’s ability to provide support at every point along the path to graduation.

Retention case study results
  • 18% higher retention among all students who received coaching
  • 33% increase among African American students
  • 23% increase among part-time students
  • 14.7% increase in student satisfaction with ICC advising after Year 1 redesign


Organizational transformation: Using federal grants to fuel student support

The oldest continuously operating two-year college in Texas, North Central Texas College (NCTC) is a great example of how federal funding can make all the difference when it comes to strengthening student support. For this partnership, InsideTrack guided NCTC in combining Department of Labor and Department of Education grants and other funding to be able to build coaching initiatives across their campuses. In doing so, NCTC also became the first community college in the US to partner with us on a “train-the-trainer” model — meaning we trained NCTC’s internal support staff on our coaching methodology, helping to vastly expand their reach and impact.

As a result of our work with them, NCTC has woven holistic coaching into everything they do and are now unified and consistent in delivering student support. By using coaching to create a campus-wide culture of student-centered support, NCTC students are reaping the benefits of a new mindset and approach designed to help them thrive.


Ready to learn more about how community colleges can take steps toward reversing the downward enrollment trend? Our comprehensive community college guide, "Reconnect, Re-Enroll and Rise," gives you five key steps and four ready-to-download tools that can help you start revamping your re-enrollment process today.

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