Gary Halvorson, Oregon State Archives/Wikimedia Commons
Blue Mountain Community College president J. Mark Browning raised eyebrows recently when he expressed concern to a local news outlet about preliminary enrollment numbers released by the state. He said the data in a November report issued by the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission (HECC) differed from his institution’s current data and painted an overly rosy picture of some state higher ed institutions’ recovery from the pandemic. His comments have prompted a larger discussion about the unique challenges of when and how to collect community college data and track enrollment trends at a state level.
Browning told the East Oregonian that his college’s enrollment is trending downward this fall, but the preliminary head count in the report indicated that it was increasing. Data from the HECC list BMCC student head count as 1,685 in fall 2022, up from about 1,531 the year before, a nearly 10.1 percent increase.
“The assertion that we weren’t down this fall, we really are, we are down about 7 percent,” Browning told the news outlet. “Here’s what we do know—we budgeted for a 3 percent decline in the budget, so [there’s] about 4 percent to make up.”
He added that “out of the 17 community colleges in Oregon, I know of at least 12 that say, ‘That’s not our number.’”
Browning declined to speak on the record about his concerns about the numbers; college officials also would not comment on the issue.
Morgan Cowling, executive director of the Oregon Community College Association, said the variation in the numbers is the result of the early reporting period. The HECC report lists enrollment numbers collected in the fourth week after classes have begun. However, enrollments at community colleges can change between the fourth week and the end of the semester if more students enroll or stop out, or because colleges offer a variety of short-term programs that might not have full enrollments at the time of the four-week count.
She’s heard from college leaders that the report numbers are “largely accurate” but reflect only “a point in time” and not the continued fluctuations that occur after the fourth week of classes.
“Really it’s the end-of-term numbers that are the best indicator of overall college enrollments,” she said.
Endi Hartigan, communications director for the HECC, wrote in an email that sharing these fourth-week counts “initially started because this was the standard reporting timeline for the public universities,” and interest in community college trends, including from community college leaders, led the commission to report community college enrollments on the same timeline. She said the commission used head-count numbers for the fourth week of classes provided directly by the colleges in the report. She noted that the report numbers are “preliminary” and merely used to “communicate to the media and partners the general trends in enrollment for the year.” The fourth-week numbers are not used in the state funding formula.
“BMCC is the only Oregon community college that raised concerns about accuracy of the 4th week enrollment numbers,” she said.
Hartigan noted that, in general, enrollment totals for an institution can vary for a range of reasons, including the point in the semester that a count is taken; the types of students included or left out, such as students taking noncredit courses; and the data sources used by the college. For example, one factor may be whether high schools have provided colleges with dual-enrollment data at the time of the count. Whether college officials change the way they collect enrollment data from year to year also affects the numbers reported by the HECC, she said.
Officials at Klamath Community College said their short-term workforce programs, among other factors, explain why their final enrollment count this fall is likely to differ from the fourth-week enrollment numbers they provided to the HECC. The college was cited by Browning in the East Oregonian as an example of another institution whose enrollment was not properly captured by the report numbers.
“Klamath Community College believes fourth week reporting is not necessarily a full picture of its enrollment, as students may add/drop courses within our term’s later start date,” read a statement provided by the college. “Additionally, some programs and non-credit courses at KCC may last only a few weeks, with enrollment not solidified by the fourth week.”
The college also offers a GED program that students can start and complete throughout the year and programs in collaboration with businesses where the timing fluctuates based on the schedules of their industry partners, “leading to fourth week numbers that may not always comprehensively reflect final term enrollment.”
A Common ‘Back-and-Forth’
The complexities of tallying enrollments at community colleges aren’t unique to Oregon.
Rob Anderson, president of the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, said it’s not unusual for states to collect preliminary enrollment data for colleges and universities at the four-week, six-week or eight-week mark after classes start and then collect enrollment numbers again at the end of the term. The timing of enrollment counts often leads to this kind of “back-and-forth” between campus leaders, who want to ensure the data shared capture all of their students, and state officials wanting an early indication of enrollment trends and whether statewide efforts to improve college access are working.
“States have limited resources,” Anderson said. “They’re trying to make the smartest, most efficient policy decisions to disburse these resources, so they want to know what all of the trends are across time … and this is just one of many types of analyses that they’ll do that gives them that early look at what college access might look like, at least at first glance.”
John Hetts, executive vice chancellor of the Office of Innovation, Data, Evidence and Analytics at the California Community Colleges, said collecting the right data to get a comprehensive look at enrollments can be challenging.
He noted that “it’s always better to have more data sooner,” but the California system of 116 colleges doesn’t collect preliminary enrollment data from its campuses, partly because it doesn’t have the resources and infrastructure to do so, and he suspects the same is true for other large state community college systems.
Some of the smaller, less resourced colleges in the system with limited staff already struggle with reporting required end-of-term data, he said. Those challenges to enrollment data collection across the system have real ramifications for institutions and students.
As a result, “more elite colleges” and private colleges, including for-profits, “can do that kind of very sophisticated work to try and market to students, support students in ways that are far more comprehensive than we can,” he said.
He added that calculating enrollment numbers in general is a more complicated process for community colleges than for their four-year counterparts.
“For traditional four-year colleges that aren’t doing workforce training, that aren’t doing noncredit, where the students that you have in the fall are pretty much most of the students that you have all year … you can do a pretty good estimate straight away,” he said. “The diversity of missions that community colleges have make establishing who you’re going to count as a student [and] when far more complex.”
He noted that community colleges serve students who aren’t relevant to enrollment numbers at universities. For example, some students at California Community Colleges are enrolled in positive attendance classes, where they get credit for attending a certain number of hours, while others are in independent study courses or noncredit programs. Some students use campus services and supports, such as enrollment advising, but never end up attending classes.
“People always ask people like me, ‘How many students do you have?’” he said. “And my first question always has to be, ‘How do you want me to define a student?’ It’s a very challenging thing for community colleges.”
Anderson believes the most important thing is for state officials and systems to keep the timing of their enrollment counts consistent year to year and make sure they’re clear with campus leaders about “the definitions of what is being collected” and the timing of those counts.
With those conditions in place, he sees collecting preliminary enrollment data as harmless and potentially useful.
“I don’t really see that that figure should cause any long-term negative effects,” he said. “It’s just that early glimpse that states have asked for the last several decades.”
Hartigan, of the HECC, noted that the state commission is “open to continuing this discussion with campus leaders.”
Cowling, of the Oregon Community College Association, said the association plans to wait and see how end-of-term enrollment numbers at state community colleges compare to fourth-week counts in the report to get a better sense of whether these two figures show similar trends and whether the early numbers are a useful metric.
“We’ll be working closely with the HECC to look at the fourth-week enrollment numbers and having continuing conversations to make sure that those are useful and helpful and that we all know exactly what these mean for community colleges moving forward,” she said.