Employment and unemployment rates, much more than the number of high school graduates or other population trends -- which are important over time but very slow moving -- are the biggest factors driving enrollment for community colleges, for-profit colleges and some open-access four-year institutions.
Selective public and private colleges can control the size of their incoming classes by tinkering with admission criteria, and they tend to draw students whose decision is not whether to attend college but where. But community colleges accept anyone with a high school diploma who wants to enroll, and the size of that potential market varies depending on what the alternatives are.
For low-income students, especially at colleges where tuition is low and often covered by financial aid, the biggest cost of college is the opportunity cost -- the money a student could have earned by working instead of going to school.
In times of high unemployment, that cost for many is zero, and however hard someone might be struggling to make ends meet, going to college doesn't necessarily make it any harder. (Whether they can succeed in college without enough money for food or rent is the real question.)
But when unemployment is low and jobs are relatively plentiful, the choice to enroll is also the choice to leave money on the table, money students may need in the short term to cover basic necessities.
In that case, working in the short term also has its own long-term opportunity cost -- in the higher lifelong earnings available to college graduates.
For middle- and higher-income students, it is easy to choose the much greater long-term benefit over the short-term prospect of poor wages in a low-skill job. But for those with no savings or support from family members, and who may be supporting others with their income as well, work may seem like the only viable option.
So it is not surprising that when unemployment goes up, community college enrollments tend to spike, and when unemployment goes down, enrollments drop. (See image below.)
For every 1 percentage point change in the unemployment rate from May to May, community colleges can expect a 2.5 percent change (up or down) in fall full-time enrollment.
For this fall, if the past is any indication, the 0.8 percentage point drop in unemployment from 2014 to 2015 should translate into between a 1 and 3 percent enrollment decline. Regions hitting a rough patch -- say, the energy-producing areas of the country -- may see the opposite trend.
But with states, institutions, philanthropic organizations and the federal government all working to improve college access and attainment, perhaps one day this correlation will weaken, and low-income students will be able to make the kinds of long-term trade-offs and choices for the future that their better-off counterparts have always found so easy.
Nate Johnson is a higher education researcher and principal of Postsecondary Analytics, LLC.
A new report from the Education Commission of the States looks at the various ways states are implementing reverse transfer policies to retroactively award associate degrees to students pursuing four-year diplomas.
Reverse transfer programs help students understand the importance of a two-year degree and award students for previously earned credit. So far, 10 states have statewide policies to award associate degrees to eligible students, though other states offer similar reverse transfer pathways through institutional agreements. The report examines the reverse transfer policies in Colorado, Michigan, Missouri, Oregon and Texas in particular.
States that have implemented reverse transfer are increasingly using technology that allows them to track student data and transcripts, the report notes. Some states are also using grant dollars from foundations such as Lumina Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Helios Education Foundation to reach their reverse transfer targets.
Community colleges are starting programs in four California prisons, The Los Angeles Times reported. The move comes amid a push from the Obama administration and others to add college-level prison programs that were largely wiped out when Congress barred Pell Grants from going to prisoners.
The U.S. Department of Education is moving closer to an official announcement of an experiment to allow some prisoners to receive Pell Grants. On Monday Arne Duncan, the education secretary, came close to dropping the details for an experimental sites project, which would grant a limited waiver to the federal rules that prevent prisoners in state and federal prisons from receiving Pell Grants. As Inside Higher Edreported in May, prison education programs at a handful of colleges might be eligible to participate in the experiment.
Duncan said the feds are working on an experimental sites program that would open up Pell eligibility to "incarcerated adults seeking an independent, productive life after they get out of jail," according to a transcript of the major policy speech Duncan gave at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. When asked during a phone call with reporters for more details, Duncan said, "Stay tuned." He is scheduled to appear at a Maryland prison on Friday with Loretta Lynch, the U.S. attorney general. The event will include a visit to Goucher College's prison education program, and a "major announcement" is planned.
The U.S. Congress banned the use of Pell Grants by prisoners in 1994. Congressional Democrats have called for the ban to be dropped. If the experimental access is successful, it could bolster the case for a full restoration. But opposition appears likely among Republicans.
The Florida Board of Education approved a new performance-funding system for its state colleges that will determine how to award $40 million to the institutions. The plan resembles a larger performance plan that started last year for the state's universities. The colleges are scored in four categories: completion, retention, job placement and continuing education for graduates and entry-level wages for graduates. Completion and retention rates will initially be weighed more heavily than the other two categories.
Seven colleges will receive existing funding and a higher share of new money. They are State College of Florida, and Santa Fe, Valencia, Tallahassee Community, Lake-Sumter State, Gulf Coast State, Manatee-Sarasota and Florida SouthWestern State Colleges. Five institutions will not receive any new funding and will have some existing dollars held back until they show improvements. Those colleges are College of Central Florida, Pasco-Hernando State, Daytona State, Northwest Florida State and Pensacola State colleges. Sixteen other colleges will receive existing and some performance funding.
The University of Wisconsin Colleges, a system of 13 two-year college campuses, on Tuesday announced it would consolidate the leadership jobs for those campuses into four regions, with a single executive officer for each region. Those four leaders will replace the current 13 top posts at the campuses.
The system said it was eliminating the equivalent of 83 full-time administrative positions to cope with its $5 million share of the $125 million state budget cut to the University of Wisconsin System. Another $125 million cut is slated for next year. The UW Colleges, which enroll 14,000 students, will not eliminate any faculty positions, the system said in a news release.
Cathy Sandeen, chancellor of the UW Colleges and UW-Extension, said the budget cuts are the largest in the system's history.
“In making these changes, we are staying true to our key priorities and our mission: to ensure access, to provide the highest level of instruction and services to our students, and to uphold our commitment to the communities that invest in us,” Sandeen said in a written statement. “I have been strongly committed throughout our budget reduction processes to protecting our academic program, which is our core mission.”
Oregon's governor, Kate Brown, a Democrat, on Friday signed a bill to create a free community college grant, several news outlets reported. Oregon follows Tennessee as the second state to fund a statewide free community college program. The legislation includes $10 million for qualifying students, who will each receive at least a $1,000 grant. The state also will spend $7 million on related student success and completion programs.
The news earned a celebratory tweet from President Obama:
Congrats to Oregon on passing two years of free community college! Every hardworking student deserves access to higher education.