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How to Maintain Reforms When Enrollments Drop

By Bob Woods

As the economy improves, fewer students are enrolling in community colleges. That’s to be expected. But as the first installment in this two-part series points out, the associated dip in student funding is no excuse to throttle back on essential community college reforms.

Remember this number: 138.4 million. That’s the number of Americans who were employed as of the first week of June. The figure, courtesy of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, represents an important milestone in the nation’s economic recovery. For the first time since the end of the Great Recession, all of the jobs lost during the economic downturn have been recovered.

While the economy is not yet back to full strength, economists say the fact that employers are hiring again, and at a steady pace — May marked the fourth consecutive month that U.S. employment surged by more 200,000 jobs — is evidence the that economy is surging.

That would seem like good news, says Sandra Kurtinitis, president of the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC). “The economy is improving, and people are going back to work.”

The economy is improving and people are going back to work.

But for Kurtinitis and her community college colleagues across the country, the resurgent job market has had an unintended consequence: More jobs equals fewer students, which, given the standard funding equation used in most states, translates to less funding.

Not exactly the ideal recipe for a nationwide network of colleges in the throes of an ambitious, often expensive, reform agenda.

In this two-part series, we’ll examine the impact the economic recovery is having on the nation’s community colleges and highlight some promising practices for sustaining reforms in an era of shrinking enrollments. (Read Part Two.)

The big picture

Community college enrollments hit historic highs during the Great Recession. Now that the economy is solidly in growth mode, those numbers have begun slide.

Take California: In 2013, the state’s gross domestic product grew 2 percent after inflation. Statewide unemployment shrank from 10.5 percent in 2012 to 8.9 percent last year. The resurgent economy may have created more opportunities for job seekers, but it left some empty seats in its wake. Folsom Lake College (FLC), near Sacramento, reported there has been a 7.2 percent decrease in enrollments since 2013.

FLC president Rachel Rosenthal sums it up this way: “As the economy gets better, individuals tend not to go to school. But when the economy is poor, people go back to school.”

Nationwide, colleges saw similar declines. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reports that during the first six months of 2014, community college enrollments dipped 2.7 percent. Those numbers mark a slight improvement compared with 2013, when enrollments shrank by 3.1 percent, yet the declines are expected to continue.

In some respects, community colleges are victims of their own success. A recent economic impact study, conducted by emsi on behalf of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), estimates that former students of U.S. community colleges added $806.4 billion in fresh income to the national economy in 2012 alone. That equates to 5.4 percent of U.S. GDP, stark evidence of the role that two-year career and technical colleges have played in the nation’s economic recovery.

Attitude adjustment

At CCBC, enrollment was down 3.6 percent in 2013 after falling 4.1 percent in 2012. In addition to an improved economy, Kurtinitis attributes the declines to changes in the Pell Grant program that have reduced the number of eligible students.

Having worked in higher education since 1967, Kurtinitis is no stranger to the cyclical nature of education funding. While a lack of dollars can be discouraging, she says it is not a valid excuse. If anything, it’s a reason to work harder.

“The wrong thing for us to do is to start acting worried and let our state and county funders use that as a cudgel to hit us over the head and say, ‘You’re not doing a good job; you don’t need this much money; we’re going to take some back.’”

As the least funded sector of higher education — and some might argue, one of those most effective — community colleges must chart a new path forward, Kurtinitis says, one that isn’t necessarily reliant on funding tied to full-time enrollments.

“Too often — and I’ve seen it at my own college — people get worried that enrollment is going down. This happens on a regular basis about every 10 years.”

That’s why it’s important to keep a united front, and to identify new resources and partnerships, so that when enrollments do decrease — and they will — “we can focus on educating the students that we have.”

The new normal

Davis Jenkins, a senior research associate with the Community College Research Center at Teachers College on the campus of Columbia University, agrees. He says community colleges must learn to operate in a new environment, where funding is not guaranteed.

In many states, the focus has shifted to tuition, with dozens of colleges approving cost increases passed on to students and families. As the cost of college rises, so too does the need to get students through the system faster.

“That means having programs that lead where students want to go: advancement in the labor market and advancement to the next level of education,” Jenkins says.

His advice mirrors the recommendations issued by the AACC’s 21st-Century Initiative in Reclaiming the American Dream: Community Colleges and the Nation’s Future, which advocates for creating clearer academic pathways to help students achieve their academic goals.

As educators, we’re being asked to more carefully construct the student experience.

Whether you’re in California or across the country, in Baltimore, community leaders agree that such changes require creative thinking.

“As educators, we’re being asked to more carefully construct the student experience,” says FLC’s Rosenthal. “Open the door, provide access, and also think carefully about what services we’re providing to ensure those students are retained.”

Interested in learning more about the types of programs that are having an effect on the nation’s community college campuses? Read Part Two now.

Bob Woods

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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