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Layoffs don’t drive community college enrollment

A new study to be published in the February 2023 issue of the Economics of Education Review shows that job loss is not a significant driver of community college enrollment. Further, the authors conclude that most people who enrolled in a degree program following a job loss were likely to have enrolled in college even if they had not lost their jobs.

The study authors examined workers in Ohio who lost their jobs in a mass layoff event between 2002 and 2009. Among those workers, 9% enrolled in a degree program at a two- or four-year institution following their job loss. By analyzing the data, however, the researchers found that job loss was the primary motivator in college enrollment for just 1% of laid-off workers. In other words, for every 100 workers who lost their jobs, only 1 was motivated to enroll in a degree program. Additionally, the analysis showed that much of this enrollment following job loss came from workers who lost manufacturing jobs.

The authors cited several factors that kept displaced workers out of community college classrooms. Although some factors varied by state, they nonetheless had an impact on people’s options following the loss of employment. For example, the availability of unemployment insurance and the length of the unemployment benefit had some impact on when (or whether) a person enrolled in college coursework.

Similarly, the availability of Disability Insurance benefits also impacted a displaced worker’s decision to enroll in school. The authors found that the per capita population of workers on disability insurance increased by thirty times in areas where manufacturing workers experienced mass layoffs.

Community college enrollment is about money

Most important were the labor market conditions when the layoff event occurred. Community college enrollment increased marginally among laid off workers only with a weak labor market. Once enrolled, laid off workers persisted on average for five terms, and 29% of displaced workers graduated.

The researchers also studied a control group who did not experience a mass lay off event. The enrollment rate among those workers was similar to the study group who had lost their jobs.

Among those who lost their jobs, the bottom third of earners were three times more likely to enroll in a degree program. Those least likely to enroll were in the top-third of earners at the time of their displacement.

Income and earning potential influence community college enrollment. Most programs do not generate sufficient annual earnings to support a family. For those who see community college enrollment as a pathway to a university transfer, only one out of six students who intend to transfer to a four year school does. Often, those who transfer find that their community college credits don’t apply directly to their four-year degree requirements.

Under these circumstances, community colleges don’t serve the needs of either students seeking occupational degrees or transfer credits. It also means that communities throw a lot of money away on community college funding. To correct this, community colleges must focus primarily on creating programs for high-wage, high demand fields. Practically speaking, it means eliminating programs that prepare students to enter low-wage fields. Additionally, community colleges must fix the transfer pathways (and academic advising) for transfer students as well.

Fixing community college enrollment will mean offering students more than a chance to occupy low-wage jobs. It also means vastly improving the odds of success for transfer students.

Photo Credit: Ray Dumas, via Flickr