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Enrollment plummets at Maricopa Community Colleges for fall semester

Enrollment at the Maricopa Community Colleges dropped significantly this fall, with every one of the system's 10 colleges declining year over year.

The decline affects the colleges' bottom lines, but even more importantly, it means thousands of potential students sat out the semester and may not attend college even as the state tries to increase the proportion of residents who go to college.

In total, the system's enrollment is down 14.5% this fall compared to last fall. Overall enrollment this fall is at 102,761 compared to last fall's 120,212, according to a headcount provided by the Maricopa Community Colleges.

Community colleges across the country have seen enrollments falter as the pandemic has exacerbated an already downward trend.

The Maricopa Community Colleges have seen steadily declining enrollment since 2010, after enrollment boosts caused by the Great Recession started to slow.

But the sharp decline this fall is faster than in recent years, made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Typically during an economic decline, students enroll in community colleges to gain skills and make themselves more marketable for jobs. This was the case in the years after the previous recession in Arizona, when the Maricopa Community Colleges saw their enrollment swell to more than 140,000 in 2010, institutional data reports show. 

The economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has not followed that trend. Instead, enrollment in community colleges nationwide has dipped by 9.5% this year, according to the most recent data from the National Student Clearinghouse. First-time freshmen, in particular, declined nearly 19% at community colleges nationally.

Students who are Native American, Black and Hispanic saw even larger enrollment declines. This may be because the pandemic and its resulting economic downturn have more profoundly affected people of color.

Meanwhile, the state's universities as a whole have seen an enrollment increase this fall, in large part because of online classes, contrasting with national trends that show a decline. However, Northern Arizona University saw fewer students this fall.

As the pandemic hit the U.S., the Maricopa Community Colleges actually was experiencing a slight increase in enrollment after years of decline, said Chancellor Steven Gonzales. But the pandemic erased that.

"We were thinking that maybe we hit the bottom of that barrel and were beginning to rebound in enrollment. And then the pandemic hits and then that just threw threw us into a tailspin. At the high point over the summer, as a system, we were down 30% at one point," Gonzales said.

Heading into the spring, a few of the system's colleges appear to be on track to increase enrollment, he said, including GateWay Community College, Scottsdale Community College and Rio Salado College.

Why is enrollment declining?

A few factors have affected the system's enrollment. Private and for-profit programs that credential students in the Valley have provided increased competition. These colleges often spend more on marketing and recruiting students and provide more hands-on support, Gonzales said.

Students have told the colleges that they are waiting to go to classes because they worry for their health and safety and because they want a classroom experience that they will learn best in, Gonzales said.

The pandemic and resulting economic downturn have made many Arizonans unable to pay rent and bills and afford basic necessities. Getting to work quickly becomes the most urgent need, he said.

"Our lack of ability to afford housing, to afford car payments, to afford to be able to put food on the table — I think that's what we're competing with there," he said.

Gonzales believes the national trend showing Black, Hispanic and Native American students more affected by enrollment drops at community colleges likely will play out similarly at the Maricopa Community Colleges.

The pandemic has compounded inequalities: People of color have experienced higher rates of COVID-19 and worse outcomes. They are more likely to work in essential jobs. They are more likely to have experienced a loss of income because of the pandemic.

"If you're going to put college versus ensuring you have a place to stay and eat, and you need to go find a job as quickly as possible to just make those ends meet, you're probably not going to choose college right now," Gonzales said.

The system has scholarship programs to help students afford tuition to alleviate some of these concerns, but the problem seems more about time away from work — and away from money to pay bills and purchase basic necessities — than the tuition, Gonzales said.

What does it mean for the state?

The enrollment drop affects the colleges' bottom line and their ability to operate optimally, Gonzales said, but the effect is far beyond financial.

Students in the Maricopa Community Colleges tend to be more diverse, have lower incomes and are more routinely the first in their families to go to college.

These students are critical as Arizona seeks to improve its overall educational attainment, an area where the state lags the national average.

The community colleges' primary role is preparing students for the workforce and to transfer to four-year institutions. With fewer students coming in the doors, that's fewer graduates ready to enter the workforce, Gonzales said.

"The types of students ... that are suffering most right now are the ones that need us most right now. And if we could just find a way to convince them that the short-term pain is temporary," Gonzales said.

Gonzales said he loses sleep over the well-being of employees and students and over making sure the colleges have the resources to flourish. Enrollment decline affects both of those. 

"So, I've got great concern for that. And we're not giving up. We're going to keep throwing everything that we have and everything that we know at solving this problem," he said.

Enrollment by college

Here's a breakdown of enrollment at each college, provided by the Maricopa Community Colleges' Office of Institutional Effectiveness:

  • Chandler-Gilbert Community College: 13,395 this fall compared to 15,585 last fall, a decline of 14.1%
  • Estrella Mountain Community College: 8,768 this fall compared to 10,120 last fall, a decline of 13.4%
  • Glendale Community College: 14,374 this fall compared to 18,054 last fall, a decline of 20.4%
  • GateWay Community College: 4,670 this fall compared to 5,067 last fall, a decline of 7.8%
  • Mesa Community College: 16,948 this fall compared to 20,351 last fall, a decline of 16.7%
  • Phoenix College: 9,538 this fall compared to 11,109 last fall, a decline of 14.1%
  • Paradise Valley Community College: 6,575 this fall compared to 7,900 last fall, a decline of 16.8%
  • Rio Salado College: 17,362 this fall compared to 19,103 last fall, a decline of 9.1%
  • Scottsdale Community College: 7,634 this fall compared to 8,602 last fall, a decline of 11.3%
  • South Mountain Community College: 3,497 this fall compared to 4,321 last fall, a decline of 19.1%

Reach reporter Rachel Leingang by email at or by phone at 602-444-8157, or find her on Twitter and Facebook.

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