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Community college enrollment surges in IL

The Illinois Community College Board (ICCB) has released its Spring 2023 enrollment figures. Among the state’s 48 community college campuses, 39 of them saw year-over-year enrollment increases. Collectively, community college enrollment (by headcount) increased by 7.2%. By FTE students, enrollment increased 6.8%. According to the ICCB, the system experienced modest year-over-year enrollment gains in the Fall as well.

The areas that saw the largest enrollment increases were Dual Enrollment (10.4%), Vocational Education (10.1%), and Career and Technical Education (9.1%). Comparatively, transfer student enrollment increased by 6.4%. English as a Second Language enrollment increased by nearly 75%. Areas that saw enrollment declines included Adult Basic Education, General Studies, and Adult Secondary Education.

This is the first time since 2010 that the state has seen a year-over-year increase in community college enrollment in the Spring semester. In terms of FTE enrollment, the state’s community colleges have about 15% fewer students than they did in 2019. By headcount, the combined enrollment is about 12% lower than it was prior to the pandemic.

Community college leaders attribute the enrollment growth to recruitment efforts aimed at adult learners and programs to accelerate the time needed to complete a degree. One such technique is to award credit based on mastery of the skills or materials rather than time spent in the classroom. This approach can help students with credits but no degree to recover “lost time.”

The report noted that student enrollment in online courses dropped for the second year in a row, but also pointed out that the system’s online enrollment was still higher than it was pre-pandemic. In Illinois, online enrollment in community college courses has dropped by nearly 42% since it peaked in 2021. Year-over-year, online enrollment dropped by an additional 9%, after having dropped by more than one-third between 2021 and 2022.

So, with effort, it is possible to increase in-person, credit-based community college enrollment in a range of programs. In this case, administrators attribute the increase to investments in student-centered support programs. The report offers limited data and cautions that it does not reflect potential additional gains from late-starting classes.

If anything, this signals the need to work deliberately to increase enrollment. Increasing enrollment may require more engagement strategies aimed at non-traditional students. It may also require additional support to help previously enrolled students and students for whom available time is at a premium. What’s unacceptable is watching then enrollment drop without significant effort to reverse the trend. Equally unacceptable is the failure to invest in new academic programs, occupational and vocational education programs, and support systems designed to assist non-traditional students.

Photo Credit: Newman University , via Flickr