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2009 November 30 - 12:00 am

The Big Get Bigger

The Big Get Bigger

Though Fewer in Number, Larger Colleges Account
for Majority of Enrollment

By Victor M. H. Borden

It seems like a long time since the national economic collapse began, but it was just over a year ago — Sept. 15, 2008 — that the Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy as a leading indicator of the troubles to come. Although not yet nationally measurable, there are many indications that enrollment demand on community colleges has increased precipitously over this past year.

But what about the year leading up to the economic collapse? It is that year — fall 2007 to fall 2008 — that we consider in this annual analysis of growth in “for credit” enrollments at the nation’s public-two-year and associate’s degree level colleges.


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Enrollment < 2,500
Enrollment 2,500-4,999
Enrollment 5,000-9,999
Enrollment 10,000 +
Table 1
Table 2
Pie Charts
Ten-Year Trends

The nationally available data that we use for this analysis, the Fall Enrollment Survey of IPEDS (the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System) data collection series administered by the U.S. Dept. of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), includes only counts of students enrolled in courses that lead to a postsecondary degree or other formal award. Unfortunately, these data do not account for the millions of additional people who directly participate in the broad range of professional and personal development activities offered by these institutions, who do not matriculate toward degrees or other awards. These activities include basic skills instruction and advanced specialized vocational training, as well as English language classes for recent immigrants.

NCES receives enrollment data from more than 7,000 U.S. postsecondary institutions, that is, virtually every postsecondary institution in the U.S. and its protectorates. We focus our attention on institutions that are “Title IV eligible,” that is, those that are accredited by a national, regional or specialized postsecondary accreditation agency.

The response rate for these institutions is especially high (nearly 100 percent) because the consequences for not responding are severe, ranging from monetary fines to loss of Title IV status, which would result in students not being eligible for federal financial aid (e.g., Pell Grants) or federally subsidized students loans (e.g., Stafford). We also restrict our analysis to institutions located in the 50 states and the District of Columbia, excluding institutions in Puerto Rico and other “outlying areas,” such as American Samoa, Formosa, Guam, etc. Finally, we exclude U.S. service academies, which typically offer courses in dispersed locations across the globe.

Modified Analysis

Two years ago, we modified the analysis to include current (and some former) community colleges that offer a limited set of baccalaureate degrees, even though these institutions are technically not two-year institutions. Specifically, we include institutions that fall within the Carnegie Classification category “Associate’s Colleges” even if they are four-year colleges by virtue of offering some baccalaureate degrees. Finally, we exclude from the analysis institutions that do not confer degrees and include only those that have reported their enrollments for both the beginning (fall 2007) and ending (fall 2008) points of our two-year time frame. These criteria yielded a total of 1,069 colleges.

This year’s analysis included a more stringent verification process. In past years, we examined the top 10 institutions in each category to ensure that their increases were not due to reporting anomalies. Specifically, we obtained corroborating evidence from state- and institution-level web sites to ensure that the numbers reported to IPEDS were reliable. With the increasing availability of statewide, system-wide and institutional data on the web, we decided to corroborate all the data this year.

If the numbers reported by the local or regional entity were remarkably different, we eliminated the institution from the analysis. This entailed some level of judgment, since many localities use different reporting rules regarding timing and who is included in the counts. The criteria for inclusion was that the difference in percentage change could be no less than a factor of 0.33 or greater than a factor of .50. For example, if the federal numbers indicated an increase of 10 percent, then we would include the institution if the local figures indicated a percentage change of between 6.7 percent and 15 percent. This process resulted in dismissing about one-third of the institutions from the analysis. Some of these differences were systematic. For example, many of the North Carolina, Oregon, and California community colleges were removed because the numbers reported by statewide entities differed substantially from those reported to the federal government.

Several phone calls indicated a variety of reasons for these differences, including the installation of new software in North Carolina that resulted in reporting errors to IPEDS in fall 2007, and different counting and reporting practices in California among various entities that report such counts (e.g., the California Community College Chancellor’s Office and the California Postsecondary Education Commission).

We measure growth in this analysis as a percent change between fall 2007 and fall 2008 enrollments. Because relatively small changes at smaller institutions produce large percentage changes, we stratify the lists by four categories of institutional size (less than 2,500 students; 2,500-4,999; 5,000-9,999; and 10,000 or more). As expected, the leading percentage increases are highest among the smallest size institutional category and lowest among the largest size institutional category.

Enrollment Trends

Two years ago, we began a practice of examining the overall trends in enrollment growth by first comparing the growth among the sector of institutions represented in this analysis with enrollment growth at other types of postsecondary institutions in the U.S. We then look in more detail at the growth within the public, two-year/associate’s colleges sector according to the size categories that we use to stratify institutions. This year’s analysis includes a modest expansion to each summary table. Whereas last year we showed only the change in enrollment over the two-year period, this year we also show the change in number of institutions.

The first summary table shows that the two types of institutions we include in this analysis — public, four-year colleges and universities that are classified as “Associate’s Level” and public, two-year institutions — account for just under one-fifth (18 percent) of all postsecondary institutions but enroll over one-third of all degree/certificate-seeking students (36 percent). Four-year institutions excluding the “Associate’s Level” colleges include more than twice as many institutions (41 percent of the total) but less than twice as many enrollments (60 percent of the total). The remaining institutions — private and proprietary two-year and all “less than two-year” institutions — comprise more than two-fifths of all institutions (41 percent) but enroll only four percent of degree/certificate seeking students.

This first summary table also shows that enrollment growth among our target group was slightly higher compared to the enrollment growth among four-year institutions (5.3 percent compared to 4.0 percent). Within our target sector, growth was higher among the “four-year associate’s” institutions than among the institutions that still have two-year status (i.e., that do not offer any bachelor’s degree programs).

The largest growth rate among all postsecondary institutions occurred among private, for-profit, four-year institutions. The number of institutions in this category increased by 8 percent, while their enrollments increased by just less than 27 percent. Even with this growth, this category, which includes the likes of the University of Phoenix and Kaplan University, now accounts for just 8 percent of all institutions and 6 percent of all postsecondary enrollments.

The second summary table and the trend and pie graphs depict in further detail growth within the target sector (public, two-year and public, four-year associate’s institutions) stratified by size. By including the change in both institutions and number of enrollments at these institutions, we see more clearly the continuing trend. The smaller institutions, although still more numerous, are dwindling in number and accounting for a small and decreasing proportion of the overall enrollments.

Large vs. Small

For example, the smallest institutions (those enrolling fewer than 2,500 students in fall 2007, decreased by about 4 percent in number (from 463 to 445). The institutions in this category now represent nearly two-fifths (38 percent) of all the target institutions, but enroll fewer than 10 percent of all students. Conversely, the largest group (institutions enrolling 10,000 or more students), grew in number by more than 11 percent (from 190 to 211) and had a corresponding increase in enrollment. Although comprising less than one-fifth (18 percent) of all institutions, this group accounts for more than half (54 percent) of all enrollments in this sector. The pie charts illustrate the stark difference between how the number of institutions and enrollments are distributed by size category.

Two corresponding trend charts depict the change in number of institutions and enrollments by size category over the past 10 years. The trend in number of institutions shows a decline early in the time frame and then again in recent years for the smallest sized institutions. The next size category (2,500-4,999) also shows some decline in recent years. In contrast, the 0number of institutions in the 5,000-9,999 category have shown steady increases in number since early this decade. The recent increase in number of largest-sizes institutions is especially notable this past year, after a relatively flat trend in the early part of this decade.

The enrollment trend chart illustrates clearly the growing proportion of total enrollments within this sector that are accounted for by the few large institutions as compared to the many small ones.

Coming full circle, we note that this year’s analysis represents a “pre-recession” view of the changing enrollment demand at the nation’s community colleges. We fully expect to see an even more dramatic increase in next year’s analysis. Will these changes show up in mostly the largest institutions or will it be across the board? Tune in next year, same time, same channel.

Comments: editor@ccweek.com

Victor M. H. Borden is
associate vice president,
Indiana University, and
professor of psychology, IUPUI.

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