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Community college enrollment declines send a message

2022 wasn’t any better for community college enrollment than 2021 was. Or 2020, for that matter. It is easy to see the steep decline in the student population, but percentages don’t tell the whole story.

Community college enrollment in the United States peaked in 2010, because of the Great Recession. During that time, students flocked to community colleges for a range of reasons. Unemployment reached 10% in 2009. Workers who lost (or were worried about losing) their jobs filled classrooms. Recent high school graduates who had little hope of finding work after graduation also poured into community colleges. Finally, students who had planned to attend a four-year university enrolled in community college classrooms when their family’s financial picture changed drastically.

So, when one compares community college enrollment to the 2010 peak, of course the numbers are going to look a little rough. Community college enrollment returned to pre-recession levels in 2012-13, so any fair enrollment comparisons should start there. Collectively in Michigan, community college enrollment has declined by more than 46% since that time – more so than in most states.

Washtenaw Community College’s unduplicated headcount during that time has declined by slightly more than 9%. Its credit hour enrollment has declined by 14.2%. Students enrolled at WCC today take fewer credits on average (12.15) per year than they did in 2012-13 (12.88). The difference might seem marginal, but the decline represents the equivalent of 1,260 full-time students.

Investment in community colleges is rising, and more states offer a free community college option for at least some prospective students. As of 2021, 33 states had some kind of “promise” program, which provides free community college tuition to qualified participants.

Even so, community college enrollment is still declining.

Increasing community college enrollment requires work

Although many people argue that the cost of attendance is the problem, that’s probably only partially true. Cost is certainly a concern for students who pay their own way through college. This includes working adults and non-traditional students. Available time and family obligations are also considerations.

Cost and time are inputs that students weigh against the outcome(s) of completing a community college degree. When the result of earning a community college degree is an increase in salary of a few thousand dollars a year, the decision to spend years and thousands of dollars – or worse – take on debt is easy. It’s a hard pass, especially in a market where there are more jobs available than people to fill them.

Community colleges could correct this by weighing the earning potential of an occupational degree program. If a graduate cannot earn at least a living wage, stop offering that degree. If community colleges eliminated (every three to five years) the bottom 5% of programs by income, that would start to raise the value of a community college degree.

At the same time, community colleges must also introduce new, high-wage, high-demand programs to replace those eliminated for their sub-par earning characteristics. Only by adding new occupational programs with high wage potentials will community college enrollment increase.

The steep decline in community college enrollment suggests that there are a lot of “passengers” in community college administration who either do not believe that it is their job to combat declining enrollment or who have no viable ideas for reversing the enrollment slide at their institutions.

It is time to demand actual performance from those at the top of the community college pay scale.

Photo Credit: Daniel Scally , via Flickr