Why is Enrollment Falling at Some Community Colleges?

Why is Enrollment Falling at Some Community Colleges?
Explore a trend seen this year, where enrollment rates are stabilizing or even falling at many community colleges around the country.

Business has been booming at community colleges across the country in recent years, as a slow economy has sent many displaced workers and high school graduates in search of affordable higher education to their campuses. However, that trend appears to be slowing – at least for some areas of the nation – this year, as many community colleges are seeing slower growth rates and even a reversal in enrollment numbers. Why the change? While no one seems to know exactly why fewer students are now enrolling in community colleges, there are some theories circulating about the lower enrollment figures.

This video looks at falling enrollment in Michigan community colleges.

Michigan and California Community Colleges Facing Declining Enrollment

Michigan is just one of the Midwestern states that is seeing some of the most dramatic drops in community college enrollment this year. According to a report a CTI Career Search, schools in Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo Valley are both facing smaller student bodies this year than last, with an approximate five-percent drop in enrollment numbers. More of the schools in the state are expecting similar declines.

“We’re hearing from at least a quarter of the schools, maybe as many as a third,” Michael Hansen, president of the Michigan Community College Association was quoted as saying at CTI Career Search. “There are a number of reasons. But when you consider that the colleges have seen record enrollment for the past five years or so, the number of people attending is still a very high number.”

Some in the state are speculating that the drop in enrollment could be attributed to a decreased number of high school graduates or fewer adults who can afford additional job training. Some are also wondering if recent tuition increases at some schools around the country have contributed to fewer students seeing community college as a good option.

CTI Career Search also reported on a decline in enrollment at California community colleges in the same article. At the College of Marin specifically, the school saw a drop of around 400 enrollees in the school, at the same time tuition costs rose from $26 to $36 per unit. College of Marin spokesperson Cathy Summa-Wolfe was quoted in CTI as saying, “I do think enrollment fees have a historical effect on enrollment at community colleges. Even though we have more students applying for – and receiving – either waivers or financial aid, fees do affect enrollment.”

Illinois Officials Puzzled Over Enrollment Declines

In Illinois, many community colleges are seeing a similar trend to Michigan and California schools. A report at WSIL TV lists a number of schools in the state that are experiencing a lower fall enrollment. John A. Logan College and Shawnee Community College saw some of the biggest drops at seven percent, but Southeastern Illinois College and Rend Lake College were not far behind, with six and five percent declines, respectively. While some are puzzled as to the reason for the drop, some state officials expected the change.

“I wasn’t surprised at all,” Steve O’Keefe, Public Relations Director at John A. Logan College told WSIL. “We felt this was coming. We had an extremely large number a few years ago, one that we never predicted, but we always knew we’d come down.”

Like California and Michigan, some Illinois are officials are linking the lower enrollment numbers to the rising tuition costs. Another possible theory is that adults who have been further pinched by the tight economy can no longer afford to sacrifice working hours to take community college classes. Instead, they are sticking with jobs that they are overqualified for in order to bring home a paycheck and pay the bills.

“Community colleges continue to be the best value in town,” Jim Bente, vice president at College of DuPage told Bloomberg Business Week. “But if it’s the difference between paying an electricity bill and taking classes, people have to prioritize.”

College of Lake County spokesperson Evelyn Schiele agrees that while a number of theories are getting tossed around about possible reasons for enrollment drops, the cost of school keeps coming to mind. Schiele told the Daily Herald, “Tuition has gone up a bit, so we’re asking have we hit a price point?”

This video reports on the decline in enrollment at Montgomery County Community College.

Growth in the Midst of Declines

Despite the many schools seeing enrollment declines, particularly in Illinois, there are a few schools that are continuing to enjoy enrollment jumps. According to the Daily Herald, enrollment at the Vernon Hills campus for College of Lake County is actually seeing a 10-percent increase this year. Some speculate that the reason for this discrepancy is that more affluent communities in southern Illinois can still afford the cost of higher education and won’t be as impacted by current trends.

Another school seeing enrollment growth in Illinois is the Waubonsee Community College in Sugar Grove, which is not an area of affluence like Vernon Hills. However, the increased enrollment here may be due to population growth in the area. Kane, Kendall, DeKalb, LaSalle and Will counties have all seen population increases in the double-digit percentage range in the past decade, according to figures by the U.S. Census reported in the Daily Herald.

While an enrollment decline may be a common denominator for many community colleges this year, the exponential increases in prior years still leave many of the campuses across the country bursting at the seams. As the economy continues to be a challenge for many American families, the community college option is still a viable path to more stable employment and higher education at a reasonable price.

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