The Surprising Effect of the Recession on Community College Enrollment

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The Surprising Effect of the Recession on Community College Enrollment
The recession has been felt through every community college, but how has it impacted enrollment? A new study from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found surprising answers.
Community colleges have traditionally been institutions serving students of all ages and from all walks of life, unlike other postsecondary schools that primarily cater to high school graduates. The recent Great Recession made an impact on enrollment at community colleges across the country, although until recently, the precise areas of that impact were not yet known. A new study has helped to clarify some of the specifics of how the recession has impacted enrollment at community colleges nationwide.

About the Study

This particular study was conducted by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center and was primarily used to determine how the recent recession impacted both college enrollment and persistence patterns. The study looked at thousands of institutions across the country to determine the number of first-time students under the age of 21 who enrolled in a postsecondary institution for the fall term between 2006 and 2010. According to a report at Inside Higher Ed, this report is designed to be the first in a series of reports titled, “Signature Reports,” by this organization.

What the Study Found
The study, titled, “Understanding the Recession’s Impact on U.S. College Enrollment and Persistence Patterns,” found that larger numbers of students chose community college after high school overall. However, the larger numbers in this area did not seem to detract from enrollment at private colleges, since these schools did not suffer the losses that many expected throughout the recession.
Dr. Don Hossler, Executive Director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center told Fox that some of the findings from the study were not what researchers expected to find. Dr. Hossler said, “The findings are somewhat surprising given the depth of this recession. Through adapted enrollment management, recruitment and financial aid strategies, institutions appear to have weathered these recent years better than many had anticipated.”
According to the organization’s website, specific findings of the study include:
  • Increases in community college numbers drove overall enrollment figures
  • Despite concerns about affordability, four-year institutions avoided enrollment drops better than expected
  • Two-year schools saw an increase in enrollment during the recession, while four-year schools maintained consistent numbers throughout
  • Persistence rates, which were much higher than retention rates, did not appear to be impacted by the recession
  • Different geographical locations boasted very different enrollment rates

Retention vs. Persistence Rates
One of the differentials this study examined was retention vs. persistence rates at colleges across the country. Retention rates refer to the number of students that have continued enrollment at a single institution, while persistence rates indicate students that have had continued enrollment at any college around the country. This study showed that persistence rates were considerably higher than retention rates at most of the schools nationwide, indicating that while many college students continue with their higher education, they don’t always do so at the same school where they started. Neither the persistence or retention rates appeared to be greatly impacted by the recession, according to this study.
Cliff Adelman, a senior associate with the Institute of Higher Education Policy, was happy with the inclusion of persistence rates in this particular study, although he believed the organization could have measured the data they collected more effectively. Adelman told Inside Higher Ed, “Hats off to them for pushing persistence rates over retention, but it’s an incomplete account of persistence. There’s something called life that higher education institutions cannot micromanage. And if I decide that my girlfriend moved to Arizona, and I’m in a funk, and I go out to Phoenix this fall and I don’t re-enroll until winter, you’re not counting me. That’s an example of how life gets in the way.”
Despite concerns over some of the data in the study, most agree this is the most comprehensive research work of its kind for specifically measuring the impact of the recession on college enrollment. Doug Shapiro, research director at the National Clearinghouse Research Center said the study intentionally focused on how the recent recession affected the decisions and plans of high school graduates across the country. The focus was narrow to ensure the integrity of the research and easier analysis of the results overall.
The Great Recession may have sent more students to community college after high school, but it did not do as much to thwart degree plans of those students as much as originally thought. While more students may have headed to community college for practical and financial reasons, the results of this study still showed that high school students recognized the importance of a postsecondary education and worked on a way to achieve those goals.  

About the NCRC
The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center was first formed in 1993 to be a non-profit education partner to colleges and universities around the country, according to the organization’s website. Focus of studies conducted by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center includes college enrollment, transfer behaviors and outcomes. The agency uses a Student Tracker educational research service to accumulate their information and produce viable statistics that schools can use to evaluate current status and make necessary adjustments.
To date, research conducted by the agency has saved institutions of higher education nearly $400 million annually. Most of the information compiled by the center is offered to institutions at no charge, so that colleges can allocate their own resources in other areas, according to a report at Fox 6 Alabama. This particular report can help community colleges and other postsecondary institutions recognize how the economic slowdown has affected enrollment and persistence patterns, so that they might more effectively respond to student needs in uncertain economic times.
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