Community College Surge

Survey documents breadth of enrollment gains, significant rise in online instruction -- and tightening budgets, potentially creating gap in educational infrastructure.
March 18, 2009

RENO -- In economic downturns, community college enrollments go up, as those who lose jobs (or fear losing them) seek to add skills or training, and as some students who might otherwise have gone away for college look to save money by living at home while attending classes. As the economic downturn hit hard last year, this trend was immediately evident, with many community colleges reporting a flood of students.

A survey released Tuesday here at a meeting of the League for Innovation in the Community College suggests that the early anecdotal reports of increased enrollment are in fact correct. Further, community colleges are reporting increases in just about every major type of program they offer -- with notable increases online.

At the same time, the colleges are reporting that they face the kinds of budget cuts that make it difficult to cope with enrollment booms. The survey was conducted by the League and also the Campus Computing Project, whose director, Kenneth C. Green, led the effort and presented the results.

In many respects, Green said, the data suggest that community colleges are keeping their long pattern of "doing more with less" by accepting more students even as they are being hit with steep budget cuts. But while this is in the best tradition of community colleges' commitment to serving students and communities, Green warned of a looming problem in what he called the "infrastructure" of colleges. The survey suggests that colleges are avoiding enrollment caps and hiring faculty members, but reducing the number of positions for academic counselors and others who help students. In one example, he noted that colleges have expanded -- and plan further expansions -- of online offerings.

But while praising this in theory, he raised the question of "how you expand online if you don't expand help desks."

The Enrollment Data

The survey comes from 120 community college and district presidents or chancellors. And while much enrollment and budget data in higher education tends to be a bit dated, these figures were collected less than a month ago, and focused on January of this year compared to January of last year.

Most of the colleges are reporting increases in enrollment by any number of measures -- full-time students, part-time, transfer students, and "reverse transfers": those going from a four-year institution to a community college.

Community Colleges With 1-Year Enrollment Gains, January 2009

  +1-4% +5-10% +>10%
Head count 21% 43% 28%
Full-time 26% 44% 16%
Part-time 26% 38% 18%
Transfer 29% 27% 18%
Reverse transfer 40% 16% 6%

Online education is an area where community colleges appear to be responding quickly to student demand, Green said, but not necessarily with complete programs. The survey found that more than 71 percent of community colleges are reporting increases in online enrollments of 5 percent or greater. But there is a gap between enrollment in individual courses vs. in online degree or certificate programs.

The survey found that 40 percent of community colleges were reporting online course enrollment increases of 5-10 percent, and 31 percent were reporting gains of greater than 10 percent. But when asked about increases in online degree programs, only 20 percent reported increases in the 5-10 percent range and 10 percent in the greater than 10 percent range. The numbers reflect the fact that it is much easier for a college to add a course online than an entire program, Green noted.

Further, the presidents' answers to other questions suggest an evolution in thinking about online education. Asked why they were adding online programs, 89 percent of presidents said that they were aiming to meet student demand. Only 39 percent reported hoping that online offerings would help reduce the cost of education. Green said that the presidents clearly have learned that online education -- done right -- is not inexpensive.

"It's not easy money," he said.

Budget and Staffing -- and Competition

The survey also looked at how presidents see the budget and staffing picture. To the surprise of no one in the room where Green presented, most colleges are experiencing budget cuts -- and frequently double cuts as midyear reductions are ordered by governors and legislators. Most community colleges are reporting cuts in spending in just about every area, Green said, except one: student aid. Community colleges appear committed to the idea of using institutional funds to make it possible for needy students to enroll.

On the staffing front, many community colleges -- even as some institutions declare hiring freezes -- are hiring. Support staff positions appear to be taking the biggest hits, and more than twice as many institutions plan to reduce their number as plan to increase them. This applies to academic support, clerical support and facilities support. These cuts appear to apply to academic and career advising professionals who may be facing more pressure to serve more students. The one hiring category where a majority of community colleges plan to increase hiring is part-time faculty members.

Green said that he understood the inclination to protect faculty slots, given that community colleges are enrolling students who obviously want courses. But he warned that at a time when the country, in the context of the stimulus bill, is talking about infrastructure, community colleges may be sacrificing theirs. And this may be particularly important given the colleges' competition. More than half of the presidents in the survey feel increased competition from the for-profit sector.

For-profit higher education tends to be quite efficient at responding to students' information requests, processing forms, guiding people through programs and responding to inquiries, Green noted. And when for-profit colleges offer good service, he suggested, they set a standard that community colleges may have difficulty meeting -- at least if they continue to cut positions outside the classroom.

These days, Green said, students have the view of "if I have one lousy experience with your college, to hell with you, I'll go to [the University of] Phoenix."


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