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Top of the Mountain?

December 21, 2011

The enrollment boom at community colleges may be over, according to a new analysis that found a nationwide decline of almost 1 percent since the fall of 2010. But two-year colleges remain crowded, as enrollment remains up by about 22 percent since 2007.

“It’s not that enrollment is down. It has essentially stopped growing,” said Kent Phillippe, a senior research associate for the American Association of Community Colleges. The association prepared the analysis jointly with the National Student Clearinghouse, drawing data from at least 700 public, two-year institutions. So while the figures are not a comprehensive look at the sector, they do provide a reliable snapshot.

Phillippe, a co-author of the report, said community college enrollments have “stabilized at a high number.”

 

Last year’s decline was due to a drop in full-time students, according to the association. Part-time student enrollments increased slightly.

The end of the boom will probably be a relief for many community colleges, because state and local governments often didn’t cover the expense of serving more students.

"When rising enrollments maxed out their classrooms and swamped their registration systems, community colleges had to be creative and find solutions," Walter G. Bumphus, president and CEO of the association, said in a written statement.

Flat enrollment levels mean community colleges should be be able to “at least do what they have been doing,” rather than scrambling to handle new growth, Phillippe said.

Anecdotal evidence this fall suggested that community college enrollments may be declining in many states, including Connecticut, Illinois, Iowa and Michigan. The report confirms suspicions of a national decline, but explaining why is difficult. That’s because many factors can blunt enrollments, including demographic shifts, state budget cuts and prolonged high unemployment rates. And those reasons differ across states and institutions.

For example, budget cuts and resulting capacity strains in California could be a big part of the story. California community colleges are often major drivers of nationwide trends, because they enroll 2.6 million students -- about one-quarter of the entire sector. The state system has been hit hard by slashed state contributions, and turned away 140,000 students last year because colleges couldn’t afford enough course sections.

The enrollment explosion of the previous three years is relatively easy to explain. More students look for job training at community colleges during economic downturns, and this recession’s wake was no different.

However, flat enrollment over the last year is probably not due to improved economic conditions, according to the report’s authors. The analysis found that the number of community college students receiving Pell Grants increased by 17 percent compared to last year.

Overall, Pell Grant aid in the first quarter of 2011 was $11.6 billion, an increase of $200 million. But that rate of increase was much slower than in recent years, according to the analysis, which is likely a “welcome development" given fiscal pressures on the Pell program.

Community colleges enrolled 34 percent of all Pell Grant recipients during the first quarter of 2011, a share that increased by 3 percent compared to the same period last year. For-profit college recipients were 15 percent of the total, a decline from 18 percent the previous year. Enrollments at for-profits have tumbled of late -- steeply, in some cases. (Note: This paragraph has been updated from an earlier version to note that the Pell data refers to the first quarter of 2011-12.)

 

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