The real reasons why community college enrollment is declining

The job market is only partially to blame

Community college enrollment has steadily declined since 2010, but college leaders say the recovering economy may not be to blame, Ashley Smith reports for Inside Higher Ed.

The job market has improved slightly since the 2008 economic downturn, and some have blamed the recovery for reducing community college enrollment.

But some experts argue the new jobs don't account for the nearly 13% decrease in enrollments between Fall 2011 and 2015—especially because manufacturing jobs that don't require post-secondary education are still well below pre-recession levels.

Anthony Carnevale, the director of Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, says the decline could be fueled by a perceived lack of correlation between college and employment.

"The whole system is just opaque. Nobody can see clearly how to use the postsecondary system to get a job. It's confusing, cumbersome, and it's expensive," says Carnevale.

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Carnevale cites the opportunity cost economic theory, pointing out that while college would connect low-wage workers to high- or median-paying jobs, the education system is viewed as too costly or time-consuming compared with individuals' current jobs.

Dan Phelan, president of Jackson Community College in Michigan, echoes those concerns. "Unfortunately many of the folks I've seen in our community have multiple jobs to make ends meet, and from a societal perspective we need a strong line between the value of an education and longtime, sustainable family wage."

Experts identify several factors contributing to the perception issue. Carnevale and Phelan argue that many media articles perpetuate an overblown depiction of student debt, overshadowing the fact that community colleges typically cost as low as $2,300. They also argue that colleges often have general education requirements that are cumbersome and don't correlate directly to a student's chosen career field.

Carla Hickman, managing director at EAB, proposes two more reasons why community colleges may struggle to differentiate their value from that of private, public, and for-profit institutions. "First, open access missions necessitate recruiting at scale to an increasingly diverse set of students with varied educational goals and definitions of success," she says.

"Second, colleges must develop recruitment messages that not only highlight affordability but also the holistic value of a two-year college experience," Hickman adds. "For example, prospective students and families are arguably more focused than ever on career readiness, and community colleges have a unique story to tell about how they provide practical, career-relevant education and training."

To alleviate the detrimental effects of low enrollment, some community colleges are:

  • Increasing tuition;
  • Educating prison inmates through the Second Chance Pell Grant program; and
  • Hiring more student success navigators to lower student-to-counselor ratios.

Some community colleges, however, have dodged the bullet and seen enrollment rates rise following the recession. These schools, which include Del Mar College and Lone Star College in Texas, chalk up their success to:

  • Hiring more faculty and counselors;
  • Improving the look of their colleges;
  • Charging less tuition than other local colleges and universities;
  • Offering workforce training programs and certifications; and
  • A surge in young people moving to the Houston metropolitan area.

(Smith, Inside Higher Ed, 10/18).

Also see: Learn how to boost your application completion rates

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