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NCWE Thought Leader Blog - Scott Alsobrooks
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Addressing Declining Community College Enrollment

    Scott Alsobrooks
    East Mississippi Community College, MS


Paradoxically, enrollment at community colleges in the U.S. is declining while the demand for workers who possess training provided by community colleges continues to rise. According to a report by researchers at Georgetown University titled “Three Educational Pathways to Good Jobs,” an estimated 16 million “middle skills jobs” that require more than a high school education but less than a four-year degree will be available in the U.S. in coming years.

While community colleges are uniquely positioned to provide affordable training to meet the demand for middle skills jobs, fewer people are opting for an education at a two-year college. Conversely, growth at four-year colleges and universities continues to grow despite rising student debt.

What has caused the enrollment decline at community colleges? A contributing factor is a migrant workforce. Many community colleges located in rural communities are challenged with depopulation as residents continue to move to urban centers in search of employment.

Let’s take a look at how we got here.

Prior to World War II, typically, an education at a university was reserved for an elite few. Unable to afford a university education during the pre-war economy, the bulk of the U.S. population instead went to work, often at a young age after dropping out of school. Many worked at factories or in skilled trades, while those in rural America predominantly labored on farms.

According to Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, 72 percent of the middle class in 1950 was comprised of high school dropouts. By 1980, that number had dropped to 40 percent and is still declining.

Ignited initially by the G.I. Bill, university attendance exploded from fewer than 2 million students to more than 11 million in a couple of decades. In 1965, the Lyndon Johnson administration introduced the Higher Education Act to increase access to higher education, primarily through grant and loan opportunities. College was no longer reserved for the upper class. And with that, a new belief was woven into the U.S. social structure: the only way to achieve the American Dream was to attend a four-year college or university.

However, even now, after well more than half a century of societal pressure, the success of this movement is abysmal. Research by the National Student Clearing House Research Center shows that the completion rate for the fall 2012 cohort of high school graduates that started in a four-year public institution was just 65.7 percent. The completion rate for students at community colleges was only 39.2 percent. Only 16 percent of students who started at a two-year public institution transferred and completed a degree at a four-year institution, including those who did so with and without first earning a two-year credential.

Meanwhile, student loan debt had grown incredibly out of control. According to recent reports, Americans owe more than $1.5 trillion in student loan debt, surpassing total credit card debt by $521 billion! According to some estimates, more than 44 million Americans are paying an average of $393 per month to satisfy the debt payment. Staggering numbers!

The good news is that a four-year degree is not the only pathway to the American Dream. Community colleges offer a low-cost education alternative that leads to careers that often pay as well, if not better, than those obtained by graduates of four-year programs.

Declining enrollment isn’t the only problem community colleges face, however. States are committing fewer dollars to support community colleges. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 47 states are spending less per student at community colleges today than they were before the Great Recession.

The issues faced by community colleges must be addressed on multiple fronts. For starters, convincing prospective students that community colleges can provide training that leads to long-term financial stability is key.

Retaining and advising students that have already chosen the community college path is critical. The high numbers of non-completers indicate a ripe market for slowing the enrollment decline.

By providing the training needed to meet a rising demand for middle skills jobs, community colleges can provide students a pathway to success, stem the tide of declining enrollment and contribute to the overall health of the U.S. economy.

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