WASHINGTON — Community colleges have taken the biggest hit to enrollment over the course of the pandemic with more than 700,000 fewer students registering, according to new data released on Thursday from the National Student Clearinghouse.

“How do you build a community college for the future when you’re feeling pinched and stretched?” said Susan Bickerstaff, senior research associate and program lead at the Community College Research Center.

Two-year colleges experienced a 3.4% drop in enrollment this fall, a less severe decline than the 10.1% drop in enrollment last fall. However, Bickerstaff called the drop in enrollment “concerning and disheartening” for both students and community colleges.

“Community colleges are already being asked to do the most with the least,” Bickerstaff said.

The decrease in enrollment represents the largest two-year decline in 50 years for both community colleges and higher education institutions overall, according to Doug Shapiro, executive research director of the Student Clearinghouse.

Experts believe the fall in community college enrollment this year is primarily driven by an open job market, whereas health and safety concerns drove last year’s drop.

“If you’re thinking, ‘Well, I need to feed my family, so I can either enroll in community college or take a job for 18 dollars an hour,’ that’s a tough tradeoff for someone who is food insecure or housing insecure,” Bickerstaff said.

The short-term gain for prospective students who decide to enter the job market likely means a long-term loss for their economic prospects, as individuals with only high school diplomas make an average of $7000 less than associate’s degree holders.

“You’re giving up the potential for a higher-skilled job and higher earnings further down the road,” Shapiro said.

The longer workers stay out of classrooms, the harder it is for them to return, he said.

“You start forgetting what you learned in high school, particularly in some of the technical courses,” Shapiro said, adding: “It’s harder to think about getting into the swing of those classrooms.”

David Baime, senior vice president of government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges, said low enrollment will exacerbate the labor shortage and could make it difficult for the Biden administration to implement its trillion-dollar infrastructure bill.

“The infrastructure bill that was passed late last year is going to demand that thousands of Americans receive skills training in order to help fill the jobs that are going to be required to upgrade the nation’s infrastructure, and community colleges have an essential, essential role in doing that,” Baime said.

According to Baime, free community college could dramatically increase enrollment and help reduce equity in higher education. A disproportionate share of community college students are people of color or come from working-class families.

Biden’s plan to offer free tuition to every community college fell through in October and there has been no policy movement on the issue since. Biden maintains it continues to be a top agenda item for his administration.

“My sense is free community college is not going to solve all of these problems. I think there are other things at play here,” Bickerstaff said. “But there’s no question that reducing barriers to affordability is definitely going to help some students.”

States have increasingly begun adopting or considering their own tuition-free community college programs.