Shrinking enrollments lead to rethinking of criminal justice programs

By Ed Finkel

Drops in enrollment at several criminal justice and law enforcement preparation programs have led some community colleges to rethink their approaches in an attempt to better align with the needs of local police and corrections agencies, as well as the desires and ambitions of students.

Due to a combination of declining enrollment and new police training academies in its immediate area, Community Colleges of Spokane (CCS) in Washington decided in June to end its criminal justice program entirely. Law enforcement agencies have been providing training academies to new recruits, while the shortage of law enforcement officers meant that the criminal justice degree no longer had the same market value.

“Our program was about the pathway into law enforcement,” says CCS Chancellor Kevin Brockbank. “The value-added wasn’t there [anymore]. … There were still plenty of people passionately engaged in the idea of working in law enforcement. But our program no longer served its original intent.”

Brockbank can’t say exactly why interest fell off and figures it could have been a mix of variables, with the scrutiny of law enforcement since the racial reckoning of 2020 among the factors. Ultimately, he says, what drove the decision was conversations with local law enforcement agencies about what they seek in recruits, and what role community colleges could play going forward.

“What came out of that was, ‘We want a 26-year-old degree-holder with communications skills and maturity — and not necessarily a criminal justice background,’” Brockbank says. “We can help them recruit that type of student out of our existing population. As opposed to, ‘You have to commit to two years in this criminal justice program.’”

Brockbank feels good about the process Spokane went through, which he says aligns with the college’s stated intent to ease students’ path to their final goal, while reducing the cost of attendance and time to completion.

“It’s a positive for us to be able to say that we went back, looked at the program and what was the original intent, and what’s the intent now, and does that still fit?” he says. “With the changes in hiring requirements, if our program was no longer serving what was intended, the best thing is not to send students down this path.”

Instead, Spokane has been working with local employers, ranging from the Spokane Police Department to local correctional facilities, to provide students with access to job fairs and other recruiting opportunities.

“Ultimately, we’re trying to do the right thing for the student who has an interest in law enforcement — get them on a directed path to that career, which no longer involves that [criminal justice] program,” Brockbank says. “We want to fulfill their dream as quickly as possible.”

Including more social justice

Middlesex Community College in Lowell and Bedford, Massachusetts, had seen an enrollment decline in its criminal justice program but has “stopped the bleeding” since recasting that program two years ago as “criminal and social justice” to attract a more diverse pool of students during the period of racial unrest, according to program chair Heloisa DuCunha.

“One of the things we did was incorporate social justice [concepts] into every single class,” she says. “We’re not so heavily focused on law enforcement. We’re trying to be attractive to students who want to work in the court system, or in rehabilitation, or nonprofits.”

One “huge recruitment tool” has been a one-credit career exploration class offered conference-style that gives an overview of various topics related to criminal and social justice, presented by professionals working in the field, DaCunha says. Those networking interactions continue into the rest of the curriculum, with personnel from the FBI, U.S. Marshal’s Office, state police, probation and parole officers, local sheriff’s departments and more than 15 local police departments coming to campus.

“Students get the opportunity to network,” she says. “I’ve heard success stories where students got jobs.”

Overall, what DaCunha thinks has helped stabilize the program’s numbers has been a review of the statewide police academy curriculum and the decision to marry core classes recommended by the state — such as criminal justice, police operations, criminal law, criminology and corrections — with requirements to take at least three humanities courses, including at least one in communications.

“We work very closely with local police departments,” she says. “I’m always in communication to see how can we grow the program.”

There’s more to the story! Read the full article in CC Daily.

Ed Finkel

is an education writer based in Illinois.