Enrollment at Community Colleges Starting to Slow But Why?

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Enrollment at Community Colleges Starting to Slow  But Why?
After years of exponential growth, the enrollment numbers at community college are starting to dip - but it is not for lack of demand. Learn about the reasons enrollment is actually shrinking.
For the past several years, enrollment at community colleges has grown at an astronomical rate, but that trend appears to be reversing somewhat. A recent report suggests that enrollment at community colleges is beginning to slow, but the question is why?  The conditions that led to the rapid increase in enrollment, the sluggish economy and high unemployment rate, are still in effect. So what is the difference? As we explore this subject more deeply, the possible reasons for the enrollment slowdown may surprise you.
The Boom
According to a recent report announced on PR Newswire, the rate of enrollment at community colleges has been on a steady incline for the past decade. Community colleges make up the largest sector of post-secondary education today, with nearly 44 percent of all the undergraduates in this country. From 2008 to 2009, that increase hit a spike, with an 11 percent increase during that academic year alone.  Between 2007 and 2009, the total increase in community college enrollment hit an all-time high of nearly 17 percent.
These percentages indicate that the total number of community college students on campuses across the country has increased by 1.4 million students since 2007. It is no coincidence that this is the same year that the recession officially began and many adults lost their jobs. Today, the total number of credit-earning community college students is approximately 8.2 million. There is an additional five million non-credit students gracing campuses across the country as well.
The Slowdown
Between 2009 and 2010, the enrollment growth at community colleges only increased by 3.2 percent, bucking the trend of the previous two years. This put roughly 250,000 more students on community colleges during the current academic year – much less than had been recently seen. These numbers were released in a report by the American Association of Community Colleges, the organization that conducted the survey. Of the colleges surveyed for this report, more than half did report student enrollment increases of more than 3.5 percent, while three out of every four institutions reported a year-over-year increase.
One interesting point to note – and a possible reason behind the lower growth – is that part-time enrollment in community colleges actually increased less than full-time enrollment figures. It is possible that as more full-time students came on campuses and filled their schedules, there were fewer courses to go around for the part-time students that typically frequent community colleges.
Reasons for the Numbers
While the study showed the slowed increase clearly, the reasons behind the numbers are not so transparent. However, the study did suggest that at least part of the reason behind the current enrollment trends may have to do with state policies. For example, data from California shows an actual decline in enrollment during the current academic year. Many of the community colleges in this state have been forced to cap enrollment, due to the severe budget cuts the state is facing.
A recent report at Los Banos Enterprise confirms this trend in California. According to the article, many community colleges are tightening their belts and turning students away, simply because there are not sufficient resources or faculty to handle the additional student load. If Governor Jerry Brown follows through with the additional state cuts he has proposed, some colleges in the state will be forced to turn away an additional 1,000 students or more. A proposed tuition increase for community colleges could also reduce the number of students that could afford to attend a post-secondary school.
Fortunately, the enrollment limits are not the case at every community college around the country. The enrollment survey also found that the majority of the schools polled said they were able to enroll all of the students that applied. Of the 267 schools that responded to the survey, only 86 said they had to turn students away because there was no more room. Those that did turn away students cited reasons like insufficient funding, limited physical capacity and insufficient staff numbers.
The Full-Time Student
The trend toward full-time students at community colleges is expected to continue. A previous report at the Washington Examiner cites Maryland Higher Education Commission's expectations of an ongoing increase in full-time enrollees, with a predicted jump of 21 percent by the 2016 school year. Reasons for the increase may be more affordable schooling, solid reputations of many community colleges and more efficient transfer agreements with four-year universities. These increasing enrollments could put community colleges in an interesting quandary, as they try to embrace bigger student populations while remaining within their already tight budget constraints.
About the Survey
The AACC survey was conducted in October, 2010. The organization sent the survey out to 888 community colleges across the country. Of that number, 268 sent responses back, bringing the overall response rate to 32 percent. It should be noted that while these results may provide a decent illustration of the enrollment trends at community colleges across the country, some states did not report any data, and smaller, rural schools were not adequately represented in the final figures. The American Association of Community Colleges is a national organization representing community colleges, junior colleges and technical schools across the country.
Enrollment is continuing to rise at most community colleges today, but the infrastructure will need to be addressed if these institutions will continue to thrive at the current rate. With many states facing drastic budget cuts thanks to the recent recession, community colleges have been just one factor in slashed products and services offered by state governments. It will be interesting to see how community colleges rise to the challenge to take their place as one of the top choices in higher education today.

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