Press "Enter" to skip to content

Low unemployment rate challenges community colleges

Last week, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released the November jobs report. In a surprise move, the economy added another 200,000 jobs and unemployment fell to 3.7%. Prior to the release, economists had expected to see an additional 150,000 new jobs and an employment rate of 3.9%. Historically, the US economy has seen a monthly unemployment rate of 3.7% only 19 times since 1948. The lowest monthly unemployment rate recorded was 2.5%, which the US economy achieved in two consecutive months in 1953.

Economists argue about the conditions that qualify as full employment in practical terms. However, no one doubts that as the unemployment rate approaches 3%, the economy has practically achieved full employment.

This condition makes things tough for community colleges. Currently, about two-thirds of community college students work and attend school part-time. Part-time attendance is one of the major risk factors for non-completion. When students must choose between work and school, they almost invariably choose work.

It’s a logical choice when one has bills to pay. But it makes community college attendance a hard sell, especially when community college degrees don’t typically lead to high wage jobs. Currently, a community college degree or certificate doesn’t add substantially more to a person’s income than a high school diploma does. Absent a clear financial benefit, students and would-be students don’t have a lot of incentive to attend.

This has been borne out by the enrollment figures at community colleges around the nation. Peak enrollment at many community colleges occurred between the mid-2000’s and about 2012. In the past decade, enrollment had dropped significantly, as have the two-year, three-year, and six-year completion rates. From the latest six-year graduation data, nearly half of all community college students who enrolled in 2017 have disenrolled without completing a degree or transferring to another institution.

Minimal unemployment may make community colleges obsolete

The low completion rates among community college students underscore a few pressing needs. First, community colleges need to do a much better job of developing programs that will enable students to enter high-demand, high-wage fields. There has to be a benefit to attending a community college, and economic mobility is one of the few incentives students have to complete a degree. When a degree does not offer the opportunity to improve a student’s financial circumstances, there’s really no reason (other than personal enrichment) to seek a post-secondary credential.

Second, community colleges must do a much better job of creating pathways designed to meet the needs of working students. Working students comprise the majority of the students enrolled in any given semester. Community colleges need to make some concessions to these students if the colleges want to keep them enrolled. These accommodations could include compressed class schedules; on-demand enrollment for foundational classes; alternative class schedules (weekends and evenings, for example); financial assistance for living expenses; improved access to social services, childcare, and healthcare; improved academic advising; and other supports that can assist working students.

As long as the economy continues to add jobs, and employers pay these workers a living wage, community colleges will continue to struggle to avoid unplanned obsolescence in the higher education landscape.

Photo Credit: Classic Car Club Manhattan, via Flickr