December 7, 2021

Community College Enrollment Is on the Decline. Could Vaccine Mandates Be to Blame?

With all the COVID-19 mandates in place, it’s no wonder students are leaving in droves.

This article is excerpted from LiberatED, a weekly email newsletter where FEE Senior Education Fellow Kerry McDonald brings you news and analysis on current education and parenting topics. Click here to sign up.

Public elementary and secondary schools aren’t the only settings experiencing an ongoing enrollment drop this academic year. Community colleges are also facing a decline. Similar to K-12 public schools that lost students in 2020 and continue to lose them this academic year, many community colleges are seeing a student retreat as well.

An Inside Higher Ed article this week delved deeper into the community college enrollment decline, highlighting a community college in Oregon that lost 14 percent of its students last year, and predicted losing another 2 percent this fall. Instead, they’ve lost 20 percent this academic year.

While the article acknowledges that community colleges have been confronting declining enrollments for the past decade, it quotes one administrator in a large Arizona community college system as “really surprised” by the latest enrollment drop. The article speculates about possible reasons for the decrease, including broader economic factors caused by the coronavirus response and the potential challenges of remote learning. But noticeably absent from the article interpretation is the imposition of COVID-19 vaccine mandates on students and staff in community colleges across the country.

As one assistant professor at a community college here in New England told me recently, asking for anonymity: “Recently my school mandated vaccines for certain students less than a week before classes started causing confusion and stress. Students reported feeling ‘ambushed’ and felt the administration intentionally did this last-minute so they did not have time to make an informed decision about vaccines,” she said. “I’ve made countless accommodations for students who want to avoid the vaccine mandates coming into play for all students or staff this January by making course substitutions so they can graduate, but it impacts some of their vocational licensure which is diminishing their ability to work post graduation.”

The effect of COVID-19 vaccine mandates on the US workforce has been well-documented by my FEE colleague Jon Miltimore, who has written about employees in various sectors quitting their jobs over these mandates. Students in higher education programs are also quitting over the mandates, which is particularly concerning when it involves nurses-in-training in a healthcare sector that is already grappling with severe staffing shortages.

The community college professor I interviewed, who indicated that the majority of her students are low-income and people of color who have been generally more resistant to getting the COVID-19 vaccine, added that for all the talk about “equity” and “access” in these higher education programs, the vaccine mandates create enormous education hurdles. “I would love people to recognize the hypocrisy of ‘ensuring access’ at the same time they are making literal barriers,” she told me. She added that her students are being denied religious exemptions to the COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

The Nobel Prize-winning economist F.A. Hayek warned us that the “more the state ‘plans’ the more difficult planning becomes for the individual.” This has become increasingly apparent to Americans over the past 18 months, as COVID-19 vaccine mandates and related government pandemic policies have disrupted individuals’ lives and livelihoods and caused more people to rely on government dictates for direction and decision-making.

The community college students who are exiting their programs due, at least in part, to vaccine mandates, may be leaving their higher education plans temporarily behind, but they are choosing to prioritize autonomy over coercion. That is a lesson worth learning.

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This article, Community College Enrollment Is on the Decline. Could Vaccine Mandates Be to Blame?, was originally published by the Foundation for Economic Education and appears here with permission.  Please support their mission.