Press "Enter" to skip to content

Community colleges flunk Competition 101

Yesterday, I wrote about the fact that community colleges are at a huge competitive disadvantage as they struggle to attract students. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that fewer recent high school graduates enrolled in community college classes for the sixth consecutive year. States – particularly those that have statewide community college systems – are consolidating programs and in some cases, closing schools in an effort to address a developing financial tsunami in higher education.

Complicating matters is the fact that community colleges are not well positioned to compete for students. Although there are more open seats in college classrooms than there are students to fill them, community colleges aren’t really competing with other schools for enrollment. Community colleges have always competed against the job market for students.

When employment is good, recent high school graduates find few good reasons to go back to school, especially when they haven’t set any long-term goals for themselves. A steady paycheck in a good economy is very persuasive. It’s only when the economy is bad or uncertain that a stint at a community college looks to be the better bargain. Right now, we have robust employment and a lot of uncertainty in the economy. Based on the latest enrollment figures, people can live with uncertainty as long as they can keep their jobs.

So, how are community colleges managing the declines in their enrollments? Not well, from the looks of it. Last year, the State of Connecticut consolidated its individual community colleges into a single system, hoping to reduce administrative costs statewide. The State of New York, which also operates a statewide community college system, is struggling to contain financial wildfires at about a dozen campuses.

Community colleges cut programs, contract instead of trying to compete

These problems aren’t just budgetary. About ten of SUNY’s community colleges are facing accreditation warnings for their chronically poor financial conditions. Other schools, like Rockland Community College, can’t maintain consistent leadership. RCC is currently finalizing a contract with the institution’s third president in 18 months.

The Board of Trustees at Nassau Community College in Garden City, NY has approved a plan to lay off faculty members, consolidate departments and eliminate programs. At the same time, the NCC faculty claims that the school’s executive leadership authorized huge salary increases for themselves while recommending staff layoffs and program cuts. Last month, the faculty filed an ethics complaint with the State of New York, claiming that the NCC administration paid a lobbying firm $120,000 in violation of state law to support a proposal to build a casino at the nearby Nassau Coliseum.

Monroe Community College, in Rochester, NY, narrowly averted planned layoffs this week because enough retirement-eligible faculty and staff accepted a proposed buyout. Staff reductions and tuition increases, among other measures, may help the school correct a $6M budget deficit. MCC’s enrollment has declined by nearly half in the past decade.

What’s absent at all of these schools is the plan to increase enrollment. There is no acknowledgment that people attend college based on the available programs. When community colleges offer only lackluster programs that deliver marginal economic opportunities, people will choose the easier and faster option – which is to get a job that doesn’t require a college degree but may enable them to earn enough to pay their bills.

It’s a competition. If community colleges offered training for high-wage jobs, their classrooms would be full.

It’s really not that hard.

Photo Credit: Weeza, via Flickr