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Community college enrollment hinges on competition

Community colleges have never faced a larger array of competition for students than they do right now. An outdated understanding of what consists of competition is likely responsible – at least in part – for year-over-year declines in community college enrollment. This misunderstanding erodes the institutions’ ability to compete for students. Their failure to adapt threatens not only the institutions, but also the communities that support them.

Community college trustees who retain the outdated notion that a community college competes primarily against other local higher education institution will likely do the institution more harm than good. Adopting this assumption denies the reality that community colleges lose prospective students to online universities.

You’ve undoubtedly heard the adage, “Speed kills.” Nowhere is this truer (for community colleges, at least) than in the competition with online universities for students. Online universities have become incredibly adept at recruiting (and winning) the battle for students. A 2022 data analysis showed that 55% of undergraduate applicants and 56% of graduate applicants were “definitely” or “very likely” to enroll in the first online university that offered them admission. Add in the “likely” students, and the figure expands to 84% of undergraduate applicants and 86% of graduate applicants. Being first in the admissions race will have little to no influence on just 14%-16% of online applicants.

In addition to having their students picked off by online universities, community colleges must also compete against the rising demand for unskilled labor in the job market. In 2022 alone, the average wage for workers aged 16-24 rose by more than 10%. That increase might be enough to convince these workers to skip community college, especially when the earnings gap between a high school diploma and an associate degree is about $80 per week.

Additional competition for community college enrollment?

Beyond online universities and the workforce, there are 1.1 million discrete credentials, offered by just about everyone that impact community college enrollment.

According to research by the Gates Foundation, nearly half of all 18-30 year olds who have never attended a post-secondary institution have taken classes on YouTube or another online learning platform. One quarter of people in this group have taken (or are currently taking) an online certification or licensure class. About 12% of Michigan’s population falls into this age bracket. Estimating that 40% of them never enrolled in a post-secondary institution, the data suggest that 225,000 young adults in Michigan are pursuing or have pursued some type of online learning. More than 56,000 young adults are using online alternatives to pursue some form of licensure or certification.

Other sources of competition include federated university application options (e.g., The Common App), which allow students to apply to multiple colleges simultaneously. Recent application data suggests that college-bound high school students apply to more colleges now. Additionally, many colleges and universities have pushed the pause button on ACT and SAT scores, which increased the number of applications to four year schools from students who previously thought their standardized test scores would impair their chances of admission to their preferred schools.

These amount to extraordinary levels of (successful) competition directed toward community colleges. At the same time, community colleges haven’t done themselves any favors by not being prepared to offer high-wage, high-demand degree programs that offer a clear, straightforward path to completion.

This is the harm in thinking that your competitors are institutions within 30 miles of your campus.

Photo Credit: Craig Hadley , via Flickr