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Restoring community college enrollment levels

There’s been much hand-wringing lately about the large drop in community college enrollment. Researchers, community college administrators and politicians are trying figure out how to change that. One recent observation from California suggests that moving community college students to a pass-fail grading system would help.

California’s public universities are not amused. They will not accept community college transfer credits that come without a grade. Usually, that means students need to retake the class at the university, or in some cases, “unmask” the grade, if that option exists.

The community college enrollment problem isn’t a result of grade anxiety, so the pass/fail suggestion isn’t likely to keep students in school. Further, the enrollment problem is bigger than those students who are taking classes. It also applies to high school graduates who have entered the workforce with just a high school diploma.

Comparing community college enrollment to prior years also isn’t super helpful. Between 2007 and 2009, people hiding out from the Great Recession swelled community college classrooms. Any comparison to those numbers is going to make today’s enrollment look skinny.

I’m not papering over the enrollment “crisis” at community colleges. It is both real and problematic. So, what is keeping community college classrooms empty?

For vocational and occupational education programs, the issue is very simple. There is little value in attending a community college because the resulting degree won’t raise your salary very much. It’s not worth the time or effort to spend two-four years (or more) in the classroom to raise your pay by $100 per week. Community college degree programs don’t generate much of a salary boost because the occupational programs consistently prepare people for chronically low-wage jobs. Rather than enabling people to escape poverty, a community college degree increasingly commits them to a lifetime of it.

Community college enrollment slide is all about the money

Many universities have temporarily suspended or loosened their application standards by not requiring standardized test scores. This allows students who would otherwise transfer into a four-year school to start there directly.

Additionally, community college administrators who either don’t understand or don’t appreciate the value of vocational education have begun to measure a vocational program’s “effectiveness” by whether the program “makes money.”

That ignores the fact that the community subsidizes community college education in exactly the same way it subsidizes K12 education. Some of these programs – like the EMS program in Montgomery, AL – aren’t about making money. There is (and should not be) a requirement that community college majors should generate a profit for the school. The community subsidizes these expensive vocational programs explicitly because they are too expensive to deliver any other way.

Community colleges aren’t irrelevant, but administrators have done little to counter the blows. If community college administrators are serious about raising enrollment, they must introduce vocational and occupational education programs that generate a living-wage income for graduates. Instead of measuring a program based on its ability to make money for the college, administrators should measure programs instead on their ability to make money for the students.

There has to be a reason for students to attend a community college. Right now, there isn’t one.

Photo Credit: Josh Davis , via Flickr