Community college enrollment has steadily declined since 2010, but experts say the recovering economy may not be to blame, Ashley Smith reports for Inside Higher Ed.
While a strong economy and low unemployment contribute to declines in community college enrollment, they don’t tell the whole story. Researchers say that changing demographics are contributing to falling enrollment rates—and will continue to affect enrollment for years to come.
An EAB analysis shows that the population of high school students has been declining in some regions since 2013 and will continue to decline through 2025. And as this population shrinks, community colleges will continue to see sharper enrollment declines. The declines will become especially pronounced as current high school students reach their twenties and would typically begin enrolling in community college.
Adult learners aged 25 and older also aren’t enrolling in community colleges at the rates they used to. “When the economy is really good, they leave higher education and go back to the work force,” explains Larisa Hussak, a researcher with EAB’s Community College Executive Forum.
Despite overall declines in community college enrollment, students from minority communities are enrolling at higher rates. So are students under 18 years old.
“We see a lot of enrollment being filled by high school dual enrollment,” says Kent Phillippe, associate vice president of research and student success at the American Association of Community Colleges. “More and more it’s the core part of enrollment, and there are potential issues involved with that.”
For example, most dual-enrollment students go on to enroll in four-year universities rather than community college, preventing the community college from receiving funding support for those students.
In addition to changing demographics, higher ed institutions are facing more and more pressure to produce measurable outcomes, and community colleges in particular are expected to improve graduation rates and send more students to four-year institutions despite reductions in funding.
“They absolutely need to be worried right now,” explains Christina Hubbard, who researches community college student success at EAB. “We’re in an OK spot until 2025 and then a cliff is going to happen. [Community colleges are] already struggling financially, and with the federal government pulling back so much funding from higher education, and when you add the changes happening in enrollment, we have a major problem coming very fast.”
But community college leaders are already finding ways to weather the looming storm.
“There is an advantage the community college sector has and it’s that we probably are the most resilient of the higher education sectors,” explains Sandra Kurtinitis, president of the Community College of Baltimore County. The Community College of Baltimore County has launched a series of “economic stabilization initiatives”—like installing solar panels and bringing in a vendor to take over the campus childcare centers—that have saved the college $43 million.
“You approach the challenge of enrollment decline as something you can benefit from and use that for engaged, thoughtful discussions college wide,” says Kurtinitis. “We control our own future here. We aren’t going to sit under a mushroom and pretend that five years from now when the economic cycle changes, we’ll solve our enrollment problems” (Smith, Inside Higher Ed, 6/21).