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Community college isn’t an option in 2023

For the past several years, one ongoing conversation about higher education has focused on the declining enrollment at the nation’s community colleges. For reasons that are either not fully understood or (more likely) not fully accepted, people have determined that career and education options that don’t involve community college attendance are increasingly attractive. But what are these options, and who is taking them?

According to the US Census Bureau’s 2020 American Community Survey, 6.81% of Washtenaw County’s population holds an associate degree. This represents a decline of more than 4% over 2018, when 7.1% of the population here had a two year degree. Not surprisingly, during this period, WCC’s enrollment declined. Using enrollment data that WCC reported to the Department of Education, the full time equivalent (FTE) student population between 2018 and 2021 declined by 6.83%. The number of credit hours over the same period declined by 6.84%.

This is not unique to WCC; it’s happening all over. The total number of bachelor’s degrees Michigan institutions awarded increased by 1.8%. The number of doctorate degrees they awarded increased by 27%. Master’s degrees declined by 5.85%. The number of associate degrees Michigan community colleges awarded declined by nearly 14%.

So, that’s currently the size of the decline among associate degree programs, but what is the landscape in terms of academic programming?

By far, the most popular associate degree programs in Michigan include iberal arts and sciences, general studies, and humanities. These likely represent students who plan to transfer to a four-year university. This speaks to the assumption that a community college degree is a great way to complete a four-year degree economically. Unfortunately, few community college transfer students succeed on this path.

Community college isn’t the best path to a four-year degree

Among community college students who first enrolled in classes in Fall 2016, only 8.1% completed a degree at a four-year institution. In comparison, 65.1% of people who started a bachelor’s degree program at a public four year university graduated within six years. Among students who enrolled at a private, non-profit four-year institution in Fall 2016, 75.9% of them completed a bachelor’s degree.

Following a liberal arts/transfer degree, the second-most common associate degrees are in health professions and related programs. The third most common associate degrees are awarded in business, management, and marketing-related programs.

Following that is the aggregation of small (< 250 awards) occupational programs, labeled here as "Other Occupational." The remaining associate degree awards in Michigan include Engineering and engineering-related programs; Homeland Security, law enforcement, firefighting and related studies; Computer and information sciences and-related fields; visual and performing arts; culinary, entertainment and personal services; mechanic and repair technologies. Tomorrow, I will look at the relative success of our current approach to adult education at the community college level. Photo Credit: Gideon Tsang , via Flickr