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Wages drive community college enrollment declines

Community college enrollment in 2023 increased for the first time in several years. Overall, community college enrollment has declined steeply since 2010. Two-year colleges have quite an enrollment deficit to make up if they want to recover the position they occupied during and after the Great Recession.

Based on the enrollment trends that followed, that’s not likely. And that decline will create problems for employers in the foreseeable future. To be clear, the decline doesn’t have anything to do with the population. Community colleges are not limited to enrolling traditional college-age students, as most four-year universities prefer to do. Their field is wide open.

So why has community college enrollment crashed since 2010? Data collected by the National Center for Educational Statistic (NCES) may shed light on what’s happening.

Using constant 2021 dollars, NCES data show that the median salary for workers aged 25-34 who have an associate degree declined by 2% between 2010 and 2021. If you look at the graph, the data show that associate degree salaries have held mostly constant during that time. Despite their squawking, it appears as though employers aren’t persuaded that associate degrees have persistent or increasing value over time.

At the same time, workers in the same age bracket with less than a high school diploma enjoyed a nearly 25% increase in real earnings between 2010 and 2021. People with only a high school diploma enjoyed a real median salary increase of 6.7%. Workers with some college but no degree didn’t gain any significant earnings but they didn’t lose ground either. Workers with bachelor’s degrees saw a 10% increase in real earnings. People with master’s degrees earned 9.5% more in real dollars. In other words, the only cohort of workers who lost real wages were those who had only an associate degree.

Community college enrollment won’t recover without work

The decline in real wages for associate degree earners is the cause of persistent declines in community college enrollment. These enrollment declines will not stop until community colleges change their programming to focus on training students to fill high-wage, high demand jobs. Additionally, community colleges must drop programs that produce a negative return on investment for both students and the community. In the simplest terms, when you eliminate the programs that have a negative ROI, you’re left with only those programs that produce a positive ROI.

Does it take money to create new programs? Yes. But community colleges should be setting aside money annually to fund the creation of new programs and the elimination of existing programs. (Maybe do this instead of building quasi-private health clubs and buildings the campus doesn’t need, increasing the president’s salary by 35%, and hiring a dozen vice presidents?) At WCC, the annual increases in property tax collections could easily fund the development of new programs, if the money were earmarked for program development.

The elected trustees should direct the administration to create a fund for the development of new instructional programs every year. Additionally, they should limit the use of these funds to the development and startup of high-wage, high demand programs.

Employees know that they need to continually refresh their skills to remain employed. Yet, our community college administrators allow degree programs to rot until they are virtually worthless. Community college students should not have to pay a financial penalty for earning a two-year degree, but that’s exactly the situation they’re in. It’s time to retire administrators who feel that they do not have to produce consistently high quality degree programs. They’re not doing our community any favors.

Photo Credit: Ian Sane, via Flickr