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2010 November 29 - 12:00 am

ANALYSIS: Down Means Up

A   N   A   L   Y   S   I   S

Down Means Up

Community College Enrollment Surges as Economy Sags

By Victor M. H. Borden

Victor Borden

Last year’s analysis of the Fastest Growing Community Colleges began with a reference to the national economic collapse that was just over a year in progress. Because the analysis relies on national data that is available about a year after the fact, I noted that we could not yet discern the impact of the recession on enrollment at the nation’s community and technical colleges. We noted last year an enrollment growth between 2007 and 2008 of just over 5 percent for the sector, compared to just below 5 percent growth in overall postsecondary enrollments.

In this year’s analysis, we examine enrollment change for the year during which the recession was in full swing and, according to technical measures, ended.  However, due to the “jobless recovery,” we might expect to see an even larger expansion in the programs these institutions offer that impact directly students’ job prospects. Indeed we have. Enrollment in America’s community and technical colleges increased by more than  8 percent between fall 2008 and fall 2009 and expanded at even a higher rate among the much smaller for-profit, two-year sector (up 28 percent) and among the “less-than-two-year” institutions that offer primarily vocational certificate programs (up 12 percent). 

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But before reviewing the numbers further, let’s remember what exactly we are looking at.  The nationally available data that we use for this analysis, the Fall Enrollment Survey of the IPEDS data collected 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 count 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 formal awards. These activities include basic skills instruction and advanced specialized vocational training, as well as English language classes for recent immigrants. 

NCES surveys more than 7,000 U.S. postsecondary institutions, that is, virtually every postsecondary institution in the country and its commonwealths and protectorates.  We restrict our attention to institutions that are “Title IV eligible,” that is, those that are accredited by a national, regional or specialized postsecondary accreditation agency.  Virtually all institutions provide the requested data because their ability to offer student federal aid depends on it. We also restrict our analysis to institutions located in the 50 states and the District of Columbia (excluding Puerto Rico and other “outlying areas”) and exclude U.S. service academies, which typically offer courses in dispersed locations across the globe. 

We include in this analysis the increasing number of community colleges that have expanded their offerings to include some baccalaureate programs. In effect, we focus on institutions that offer predominantly associate-level degrees along with other less-than-four-year certificate programs.  A total of 1,058 institutions appear in both the fall 2008 and 2009 files meeting these conditions, which is 11 fewer than were included last year.

For the individual campus listings, we attempt to verify the numbers found in the IPEDS survey by examining system and institutional web sites.  In particular, we are looking for cases where the change represents a change in structure (for example, several campuses being combined) rather than actual growth at a single campus or within a single multi-campus institution. Unfortunately, it is impossible to verify these counts for every institution, because the institutional websites often show more inclusive enrollment figures; that is, not just counting students enrolled in programs leading to degrees or other formal awards. 

When we come across institutions for which the numbers provided to IPEDS varies significantly from numbers found on websites and in posted publications, we generally remove the institution from the list altogether.  However, this year we have made one exception. Because of the restructuring of the Louisiana Technical and Community College System, we used a “mapping” provided by the system to combine campuses as they were reported in prior years to the institutional units that will be reported this year and going forward. For example, Delgado Community College, which appears in the largest size category (enrollments of 10,000 or more), also includes the enrollments from the formerly designated Jefferson and West Jefferson campuses of Louisiana Technical College.

We measure growth in this analysis as a percent change between fall 2008 and fall 2009 enrollments. Because relatively small changes at smaller institutions produce large percentage changes, we stratify the lists by four categories of institutional size (under 2,500; 2,500-4,999; 5,000-9,999; and 10,000 or more).

As expected, the leading percentage increases are highest among the smallest sized institutional category and lowest among the largest sized institutional category. 

Overall Enrollment Trends

We continue our practice of evaluating the recent change in enrollments at public community and technical colleges through a set of summary tables and charts. The first table compares the growth within our target sector with enrollment growth at other types of U.S. postsecondary institutions.  The target institutions are depicted in two groups within the first rows of Table 1: public, four-year colleges and universities that are classified as “Associate’s Level” and public, two-year institutions. Together, they account for about one of six postsecondary institutions (17 percent), nationally, but almost two of every five students (37 percent) pursuing degrees or other formal awards.  Within this sector, the community colleges with some bachelor’s programs (i.e., the public, 4-year associate’s institutions) have increased in number by 12 (+25 percent) and enrollment by over 40 percent.

Institutions that offer predominantly baccalaureate or higher level degrees outnumber our target group, accounting for two of five institutions (40 percent) and about three in five degree/award-seeking enrollments (59 percent).  As noted at the start of this article, enrollment in the community/technical sector increased by over 8 percent between Fall 2008 and Fall 2009, compared to just below 5 percent among the four-year sector. The two remaining types of institutions — those in the private two-year and public and private “less than two-year” sectors — together account for even more institutions than in the four-year sector (43 percent of the total), but they enroll less than 5 percent of the students.  This group is dominated by the private-for-profit, less than two-year institutions that include many small beauty schools, truck driver institutes, technical training facilities, and so on. Although the enrollment is still small, these institutions have experienced a growth rate faster than either of the more traditional two- and four-year institutions. Another fast-growing group is the for-profit institutions in the four-year sector (including the University of Phoenix, Strayer College, ITT, etc.), which now account for about 7 percent of all degree/award-seeking students in U.S. postsecondary education.

The second summary table and the trend 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. Conversely, the largest size-group (institutions enrolling 10,000 or more students), now comprises nearly 60 percent of all enrollments in this sector even though it accounts for only 21 percent of the institutions. 

We add in this year’s analysis, a state-by-state view of the change in public community and technical college enrollments.  Indiana topped the list as its statewide Ivy Tech Community College continues to experience rapid growth. Colorado, with slightly lower overall enrollments, follows closely with a 20 percent increase. The state with the largest enrollments in the sector, California, experienced only a modest 2 percent growth, which was the fourth-lowest growth rate among all states. Texas, the second-largest state in total enrollments, experienced a more robust 12 percent growth. Alaska was the only state to experience declines within this sector but, unfortunately, Alaska’s community college level enrollments understate their associate’s degree-seeking enrollments since most associate’s degrees are awarded through their predominantly four-year University of Alaska campuses.

Although enrollment at America’s public community and technical colleges grew at a faster rate than among four-year institutions, there are several signs within this analysis that state budget problems may be restricting growth. The faster growth among the for-profit institutions is one sign, as is the very modest growth rate within the California Community College System, which was one of the first systems to face deep cuts due to looming state budget deficits.  This may well be a harbinger for what we will see in the coming years’ analyses. The ongoing economic climate is spurring demand for associate’s degree and other sub-baccalaureate award programs, but state budget deficits are restricting the ability of these public sector institutions to serve that need. 

Victor M.H. Borden is professor of educational leadership
and policy studies at Indiana University Bloomington.

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