The COVID-19 Impact on Massachusetts Community College Enrollment & Success Trends

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Enrollment at Massachusetts community colleges has dropped 32.61 percent over the past decade.  The trend was exacerbated by the pandemic, as Fall 2020 enrollment plummeted 11.32 percent from the previous year.  According to a Massachusetts Department of Higher Education (DHE) report, this change was expected based on population and demographic shifts, but the COVID impact may have specifically impacted low-income students and students of color.

Pioneer set out to describe time trends in enrollment and success trends alongside presidential salaries at the Commonwealth’s community colleges using data from Pioneer’s MassOpenBooks transparency tool and the DHE Data Center.

DHE’s fall unduplicated student headcount includes all for-credit community college students regardless of full/part-time or degree-seeking status.  In Fall 2020, that number was 67,685, compared to the 100,442 students enrolled in Fall 2011.  Below, Figure 1 offers an interactive graph of student enrollment trends for the past ten fall semesters at each of the community colleges:

Figure 1: Massachusetts Community College 10-Year Enrollment Trends (2011-2020)

Source: Massachusetts DHE Data Center, Community Colleges – Fall Unduplicated Student Headcount (2011-2020)

The enrollment time trend over the past two years is not only a result of COVID restrictions and their implications for commuter students, but is instead part of consistent annual decreases in all schools.  Every single campus has seen enrollment drop in the past 10 years.  Declines range from 56.2 percent at Roxbury CC to 23.27 percent at Bunker Hill CC.  

In fact, Roxbury CC’s enrollment decreased by 31.39 percent from Fall 2019 to Fall 2020 alone, making it an outlier among the colleges.  All other community colleges saw drops ranging from 4.4 percent to 16.86 percent.  Then again, Roxbury has always been among the lowest in total enrollment with just one-to-two thousand students during the 2011-2020 period.

As college students struggle with the adjustment to remote learning while balancing the financial strain of the COVID economy, community colleges have experienced the biggest hit to enrollment.  The Massachusetts DHE points to issues like income, needs insecurity, access to technology, and childcare, but impacts from the recession are hypothesized to support decreasing enrollments among low-income students.

Community colleges usually experience a spike in enrollment during recessions because workers seek stronger credentials for when the economy recovers.  This time around, COVID hit the service and entry-level jobs that used to put those students through school.  The Bureau of Labor Statistics demonstrates the value of educational attainment, especially during the recovering economic downtrend.  In 2020, median weekly pay was $781 for high school graduates, $938 for those with an Associate’s degree, and $1,305 for individuals holding a Bachelor’s degree. 

Massachusetts’ 15 community colleges conferred 11,724 certificates and Associate’s Degrees in FY 2020 – 13.91 percent of total enrollment – but degrees and ratios are not the best metric of these schools’ success.  As for graduation rates, the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics’ measurements do not include students who transferred in, out, started part-time, did not finish within 150 percent of “normal time”, or have already achieved another degree.

A more accurate measure of success is DHE’s annual credit course completion rate (ACCCR), which calculates the ratio of total completed courses over total registered courses for all enrollments during the fiscal year.  The following table organizes these ratios across all 15 community colleges for FY 2011, 2019, and 2020 while comparing a 10-year percent change FY 2011-2020 and one-year percent change FY 2019-2020:

Figure 2: Massachusetts Community College 10-Year Credit Completion Success Trends (2011-2020)

Source: Massachusetts DHE Data Center, Community Colleges – Annual Credit Course Completion Rate (FY 2011-2020)

Throughout all years and schools, ACCCR remains in the mid-70s to mid-80s percent range, with an FY 2020 total average completion rate of 77.9 percent.  The best performing community college in FY 2020 was Greenfield CC at 82.1 percent; the lowest was 74.4 percent at Massasoit CC.  Both achieved the same ranking as the previous year.

FY 2019 to 2020 saw the largest one-year change in ACCCR at -1.77 percent.  The only other one-year negative changes occurred for FY 2015 and FY 2019 at -0.63 and -0.25 percent respectively.  Middlesex and Massasoit CCs were the only schools where the rate didn’t decline.  ACCCR fell at all other campuses, with North Shore CC experiencing a 4.33 percent drop.

The 10-year trend shows a net 1.04 percent increase in ACCCR across all community colleges, the largest jump coming from Berkshire CC at 7 percent.  Only Bunker Hill, Massasoit, North Shore, and Springfield Technical CCs finished below zero, the latter at -4.02 percent.

Below, Figure 3 illustrates the annual salaries of each institution’s president in 2020 using Pioneer’s MassOpenBooks transparency tool:

Figure 3: Massachusetts Community College Presidential Salaries (2020)

Source: Pioneer Institute’s MassOpenBooks Higher Education Payroll Data (2020)

* No Data Available for Greenfield Community College President Yves Salomon-Fernandez.  Please reference Public Records Requests 21-78, 21-84, and 21-85 at the Office of the Comptroller,

** President Patricia A. Gentile retired from North Shore CC in July 2020 after having been paid $150,206.  Interim President Nate Bryant assumed her role for the remainder of the year, making $88,569.  North Shore CC’s payments to presidents totaled $238,775 in 2020.


Putting all of the numbers together, it’s difficult to correlate enrollment or the success of enrolled students with presidential salaries.  Bunker Hill CC President Pam Eddinger makes the most at $235,424 annually, and Holyoke CC President Christina Royal has the lowest salary at $184,519, but both are below the mean for ACCCR.  While Bunker Hill does have the highest enrollment, the number two and number three salaried schools are mid-to-low enrollment compared to the other institutions.

While enrollment in Massachusetts community colleges is trending down, it seems that ACCCR success is up at most schools.  These and presidential salaries are strong measures of a school’s health and forward vision.  For more information and recommendations about presidential salary trends, check out former Pioneer intern Charlotte Emslie’s 2017 article suggesting that the inability to align salary changes to community college success is not going unnoticed.

Jack Landsiedel is a Roger Perry Government Transparency Intern at the Pioneer Institute for Summer 2021.  He is a rising junior at the University of Maryland, College Park with a major in Government & Politics and minors in Public Leadership and Sustainability Studies.