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I’m going to ask my wise and worldly readers who work at non-elite four-year colleges to weigh in on this one. It involves an alternate -- supplementary, really -- reading of the decline in enrollments at community colleges nationally.

According to IHE’s reading of new data from the National Student Clearinghouse, post-secondary enrollments in America dropped from 2014 to 2015. At first glance, that would seem consistent with the article’s thesis, which is that it’s due largely to an improving economy.

A slightly closer look bolsters that reading; almost all of the drop was concentrated in for-profits and community colleges. The four-year sector basically held steady. Most of the decline was among students age 24 and up, who are presumably more attuned to changing opportunity cost of returning to school; when the opportunity cost goes up (because the job market improves), they’re less likely to enroll.

But the two-year sector doesn’t have a monopoly on adult students, by any means. And students over 24 aren’t the only ones who respond to economic cues. Given that the four-year sector remained steady even as the economy improved, there must be something else going on.

Here’s where I’m hoping my counterparts elsewhere can shed light.

I’ve heard anecdotal, but persistent, rumors that some non-elite four-year schools are lowering their admissions standards to maintain their enrollments. From a community college perspective, they’re fishing in our pond. That might explain why enrollments in our sector are dropping faster than demographics suggest they should, while enrollments in the four-years aren’t dropping at all.

That reading might also explain the rapid rise of discount rates at many four-years. To the extent that they’re drawing more heavily on students who need more aid -- students who otherwise would have gone to lower-cost community colleges -- they’re having to pay out more to cover students’ costs. (Or to cover most of students’ costs -- “gapping” seems to be rising along with discount rates, which suggests that needs are growing even faster than spending.) Discount rates of 60 percent or more are becoming relatively common; that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.  

I can’t imagine discount rates at that level being sustainable for very long. At that point, tuition increases are almost entirely theoretical.

In a more perfect world, tuition would comprise a relatively small portion of community college revenues, so some students going elsewhere wouldn’t be so bad. But in the states that haven’t signed on to “free community college” yet -- cough, cough -- years of cost-shifting to students has resulted in our business plan looking much more like the private colleges. When you shift your revenue source to students, and the students go away, things can get ugly.

If that’s actually what’s happening -- four-year colleges lowering standards and raising discount rates to try to stay afloat, resulting in community colleges suffering -- there’s a relatively easy way to fix it. Reverse the cost-shifting to students. Then the two sectors could compete on quality, and students would win either way. Otherwise, we’re stuck fighting over shrinking ponds, inflicting devastating blows on each other and saddling students with a choice between larger loans and larger classes.  

Wise and worldly readers at four-year colleges, does this describe the reality you’re seeing? Or is there a better explanation?

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