These Associate Programs Are Driving New Enrollments

June 6, 2023

The National Student Clearinghouse released its spring enrollment data, and the news for community colleges is finally good. Enrollment was up this spring term compared to spring 2022. Admittedly, the growth was modest, at 0.5 percent or 22,000 students, but the positive uptick is a welcome change for sure after large downward swings in the previous two years.

Using data from the National Student Clearinghouse and Gray’s proprietary Program Enrollment dashboard, we examined the spring 2023 enrollment data to see which associate programs are bringing in new students and contributing to this much-needed growth. Note: for this analysis, we excluded several very large programs: Liberal Arts and Sciences, General Studies and Humanities programs reported under CIP code 24.01. Our goal is to concentrate on more focused programs.

Most Popular Associate Programs

Business was by far the most popular program with almost 25,000 new students enrolling in it this spring. Registered Nursing programs were also very popular among new students, with almost 9,500 enrolled. Although still large relative to other associate programs, both of these programs have experienced significant declines in new student enrollment over the past five years. Compared to spring 2018, new student enrollment in Business programs was down 28% in spring 2023 and Registered Nursing program enrollment was down 41%. The decline in new nursing students is especially concerning given the country’s need for more nurses. 

Most Popular Associate Programs * (New Student enrollment Spring 2023)

Computer Science programs remain popular, with 6,701 new students enrolled this spring. Other top five programs include Psychology and Bookkeeping, each with over 5,000 new enrollments.

High-Growth Associate Programs

Programs with the largest year-over-year gains in new students include Anthropology, Cyber Security, and Computer Science. Enrollment in Cyber Security programs has experienced fairly steady growth in new students over the past five years. Enrollment in Computer Science programs has rebounded to pre-pandemic levels.

High-Growth Associate programs* (YoY Unit Growth in New Student Enrollment - Spring 2022 vs. Spring 2023)

Enrollment in Anthropology programs almost doubled year-over-year, from 816 new students in spring 2022 to 1,538 new enrollments in spring 2023. Most of these enrollments were in California as this appears to be a very popular program for community colleges in that state. Spring term brought in more new students to this program than entered in the fall, which is fairly unusual.

New Student Enrollment in Anthropology Programs (Associate Degree Programs – California)

Other programs experiencing solid year-over-year growth in new student enrollments represent a variety of fields of study and include direct-to-workforce and transfer-related programs. 

New and Growing Associate Programs

In 2020, the Classification of Instructional Programs (CIP) code taxonomy was updated to reflect the emergence of new fields of study in higher education. Some of these new programs, while still small relative to more established programs, are proving popular among associate degree students. 

New and growing Associate Programs* (Enrollment Spring 2023)

Over half of these new and growing associate programs are STEM-designated or related programs such as Data Science/Data Analytics, Cloud Computing, Applied Engineering Tech, Mechatronics, Business Analytics, and Computer Game Programming. Digital Marketing and Digital Humanities are also proving to be popular. As digital transformation advances rapidly across industries, digital skills are becoming increasingly important in all occupations at all job levels. For community colleges, this could bring new opportunities to attract adult learners seeking to stay on top of their professions and advance in their careers.

Springing Forward

With the spring enrollment data bringing a needed glimmer of hope for community colleges, it will remain important for schools to understand which programs are driving this growth. Attracting new students is more competitive than ever, and ensuring you are offering programs that students want and employers need is essential to growing your enrollment and ensuring strong outcomes for your students.

Elaine Rowles


Elaine works with Gray’s education clients on strategic planning projects, program portfolio evaluations, program feasibility studies, price benchmarking, and research-intensive custom project work. She has performed in-depth analyses of existing programs and institutions, as well as assessed demand and employment opportunities for new and emerging programs.

About Gray DI

Gray DI provides data, software and facilitated processes that power higher-education decisions. Our data and AI insights inform program choices, optimize finances, and fuel growth in a challenging market – one data-informed decision at a time.

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