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Community College Enrollment Drops Again

Last month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics updated community college enrollment data for most of 2023. According to the data, 1.9 million people aged 16-24 who graduated from high school between January 2023 and October 2023 enrolled in a community college last fall. The steep slide, charted between October 2018 and October 2021 seems to have leveled off a bit, but the latest figure represents a slight decline from the percentage of recent high school graduates (62%) who turned to community colleges in 2022.

Since 1993, annual community college enrollment following high school graduation has averaged about 65.5%. It is becoming clearer that since the Great Recession fewer young adults view community college as a beneficial step in their educational and employment plans. The limited response to states’ recent push to make community college free has further demonstrated that the upfront cost of attending a community college is not the problem.

Unfortunately, the real problem appears only after a person has graduated and enters the workforce, or tries to transfer to a university to finish a four-year degree. Graduates expecting an income boost find that their take home pay doesn’t significantly differ from the income the person was making with a high school diploma – at least not enough to make the trip back to the classroom worthwhile.

Transfer students are equally hamstrung by university degree requirements. Many find that their credits don’t fulfill graduation requirements. Instead, they need to retake classes they took while at their two-year school, and end up spending four years at a university anyway. At some point, these students become overwhelmed by the time expenditure and the extraordinary cost of a four-year program, or the vastly different approach in instructional philosophy that puts some community college transfer students at a profound disadvantage.

Community college enrollment declines come from market competition

Unless community colleges address these issues convincingly and rapidly, they will find themselves increasingly sidelined by four-year universities, which seem to have solved the cost problem for the most financially disadvantaged students.

If four-year universities (especially those in Michigan) find a way to address their long-standing contention that Michigan’s high school students are generally unprepared for college, they may be able to shut down the community college transfer route for almost all students. This is a high priority for the “regional” four-year schools, like EMU, CMU, WMU, and others, which more directly feel the competition from community colleges for initial enrollment.

A “solution” for this chronic complaint may be a prescriptive high school or K-12 curriculum that the universities develop, maintain, and offer to Michigan’s K-12 school districts. This would be a huge boon to Michigan’s students, K-12 school districts, and Michigan’s universities. It could be an unmitigated disaster for Michigan’s community colleges.

This could leave only the vocational programs and non-credit programs standing at the community college level. Non-credit coursework is generally not eligible for federal financial aid, which community colleges have become dependent on. Losing the majority of transfer students and having only a limited catalog of vocational/occupational programs to offer will likely mean a raft of contractions, consolidations, and closures among community colleges today. (This is already happening in a number of states, by the way.)

I have written about the inability (or unwillingness) of community college administrators to employ the basic tenets competition in their strategies. Unless the Trustees of these institutions address this forcefully and immediately, they will passively accept their fates as non-competitors in a fundamentally competitive society.

Photo Credit: Paul