• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


That Wasn’t Supposed to Happen…

Why are enrollments falling at community colleges and rising at higher-priced four-year universities?

July 21, 2019

Over the past 10 years, public colleges have become much more expensive, in inflation-adjusted terms. Student loan debt has increased, and has become a topic of popular discussion far beyond what it was then. Decent-paying jobs that don’t require something beyond high school become ever scarcer, especially for new entrants.  

Given all of that, it’s hard to explain the general direction of enrollments, at least in NJ, over the last 10 years. With a few exceptions, enrollment in community colleges has gone down -- sometimes drastically -- and enrollment in four-year publics has gone up. That is to say, more students are bypassing the lower-cost option for the higher-cost option.

That wasn’t supposed to happen. Intuitively, one would expect increased cost pressures on the high end of the market to make the more affordable option more popular. But the market mostly went the other way.

I haven’t seen a similar breakdown of other states, so it’s possible that New Jersey is an outlier. But I don’t think it is; at least, there’s no obvious reason that it would be.

As community college veterans can tell you, one factor is that community colleges have counter-cyclical enrollments. We’re natural Keynesians. When the economy tanks, our enrollments go up; when the economy hums along, our enrollments slide. That reflects a greater proportion of students over 22. In a recession, the opportunity cost of returning to college goes down; in a boom time, the opportunity cost is much higher. Enrollments respond accordingly. The four-year colleges tend to cater more to the 18 year olds, at least among undergraduates, so the impact of economic cycles is less direct. Our internal demographics suggest there’s something to this: the average age of our students keeps dropping, which is consistent with a greater absence of older students due to a relatively hot job market.

That would explain some of the decline among two-year schools, but it wouldn’t explain the gains among four-years.  

Some of it, I’m guessing, has to do with four-year publics making up for flatlined state aid by taking more of the students who apply. Rutgers, the flagship research university here, increased its undergraduate enrollment almost 30 percent from 2009 to 2018; that doesn’t happen accidentally. Colleges like Rutgers build their own classes. If they want to take more students, they can. Historically, some of the students who didn’t get in would have gone instead to a local community college.  (Open-admissions colleges make great safety schools.) Some of that growth, and some of our contraction, comes from four-year schools increasingly fishing in our pond.

I wonder, though, if some of it reflects income polarization. A larger group of relatively affluent parents might result in more students applying to four-year colleges directly. A larger group of relatively broke parents might result in students skipping college altogether. The shrinking group in the middle -- the classic working class -- is the historical constituency for community colleges.  Community colleges were built for a middle class in a country that increasingly doesn’t have one.

From a community college perspective, declining enrollments entail obvious funding issues. (Nathan Grawe’s work suggests that the demographic headwinds are likely to continue for at least a decade, if not more.) More ominously, increased polarization threatens our mission as a sort of educational common ground. Colleges that grew without even trying, back in the 90’s and 00’s, now have to take different approaches.  

Among other things, I’m a fan of universalism. That means not ceding the higher-income or higher-ambition students to the four-years; instead, support robust Honors and transfer programs to allow students we might otherwise lose to save money in the early years without sacrificing quality. Over the long term, our best chance for sustained political support is in appealing to everyone, including those with other options. The four-year schools have shown that they’ll go after our students. I say, let them go after our graduates.

Recessions haven’t been vanquished from history; when the next one hits, many people will be glad that community colleges are still here. If we want them to last beyond that, we need to ensure that they remain relevant to the entire community.


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