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2011 November 28 - 12:00 am

ANALYSIS: Slowing Down

For the past two years, we have tracked significant annual enrollment increases at America’s public community and technical colleges. Two years ago, we documented a 5.2 percent increase and last year, an even larger 8.4 percent increase. However this year, as we examine enrollment changes between fall 2009 and fall 2010, we note that the rate of increase has declined to a more modest 3.1 percent growth rate.

Keeping in mind that these available national figures do not capture the most recent year of activity (fall semester 2011), it appears that the significant growth spurred by the financial crises that began in 2008 has begun to slow down. There are several possible reasons for this slowdown.

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First, the economy recovered slightly between 2009 and 2010 and employment rates increased ever so slightly. It is equally likely, though, that the decline reflects some constriction in capacity related to funding declines in the public sector. We will have better evidence regarding this latter possibility when the fall 2011 numbers are available, since funding for public higher education was more significantly cut for the current year, compared to the two prior years, due to the expiration of stimulus funds and the more general decline of public sector resources.

The nationally available data used 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), is based exclusively on students enrolled in courses that lead to a postsecondary degree or other formal award. As we note each year, these data do not include the instruction and training for those who participate in the broad range of professional and personal development activities offered by these institutions that do not matriculate toward degrees or other formal awards.

NCES surveys virtually every postsecondary institution in the U.S. and its commonwealths and protectorates — more than 7,000 schools. For this analysis, we consider only 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 this survey is so high because the penalty for not doing so is great: loss of access to federal aid, including Pell Grants and subsidized loans. 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 1,105 qualifying institutions appear in both the Fall 2009 and 2010 files meeting these conditions, which is 47 more 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 not possible to verify these counts for every institution, because the institutional web sites 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 web sites and in posted publications, we remove the institution from the list altogether.

We measure growth in this analysis as a percent change between Fall 2009 and Fall 2010 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 enrollment; between 2,500 and 4,999; between 5,000 and 9,999; and more than 10,000). As expected, the leading percentage increases are highest among the smallest-sized institutional category and lowest among the largest-sized institutional category.

Overall Trends

As noted at the start of this article, overall enrollment at U.S. public community and technical colleges increased by 3.1 percent between fall 2009 and fall 2010. This change paralleled closely the 3.2 percent increase that occurred among four-year institutions (public and private) over this same time period. The growth of enrollments between fall 2009 and 2010 among for-profit institutions was more robust than among public institutions (8.2 percent) but the slowdown was also larger: the growth rate for this sector between 2008 and 2009 was 25.3 percent.

The first chart illustrates the longer-term, ten-year growth trend for the public community and technical colleges, showing that, even with the recent slowdown, enrollment growth has been generally robust since 2006.

The remaining trend graphs depict in further detail growth within the target sector (public, two-year and public, four-year associate’s institutions) stratified by institutional size. By including the change in both institutions and number of enrollments at these institutions, we see more clearly the continuing trend.

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. The smallest size-group (institutions enrolling fewer than 2,500 students), although still comprising the largest number of institutions, declined both in number (from 492 to 357) as well as in total enrollment (from just over 600,000 to under 440,000). It is important to note that most of these changes occur as institutions shift from one size category to another.

As in last year’s analysis, we provide in this edition a state-level view of enrollment changes. However, rather than showing a one-year view as we did last year, we consider the changes in enrollments at public community and technical colleges over ten years. The corresponding table shows the states arrayed from highest to lowest in terms of percentage change between fall 2001 and fall 2010. The pack is led by West Virginia, a relatively small state (ranking 39th in overall enrollment), followed by Indiana, the 18th largest state in public community and technical college enrollments in fall 2010. For these two states, the large increases relate to significant structural changes in their public, two-year college systems.

West Virginia restructured six four-year institutions that included two-year programs, pulling out the two-year programs as independently-accredited institutions. Combined with other changes to the system structure, West Virginia’s investment in the public, two-year sector resulted in more than a doubling of enrollments. For Indiana, the changes reflect the growth of its statewide community college, Ivy Tech, which completed its transition from a vocational/technical system to a community college system in 1999.

At the other end of the spectrum, Alaska and Utah experienced declines in enrollments over the ten years, but both represent unique cases.

The vast majority of Alaska’s two-year degree programs are offered by its four-year public universities. In Utah, a restructuring of two of its former large two-year colleges moved them to the four-year sector.

Above these two exceptions, the more modest growth states include several of the largest enrollment states (California, Illinois and New York). It is therefore even more notable that the second-largest enrollment state, Texas, had one of the highest percentage increases in enrollments over the last ten years (more than 55 percent).

The public community and technical college sector has clearly stepped up its activity to accommodate the higher education demands of a population that is dealing with a prolonged recession.

This is particularly noteworthy because of the declining public revenues available for funding these institutions.

The slowdown in growth between 2009 and 2010 may reflect these financial restraints but also may reflect the fulfillment of market demand. A clearer picture will emerge next year when we examine the changes from fall 2010 to fall 2011, to see if budget cuts result in even slower growth or a decline.

Victor M.H. Borden is professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, Indiana University Bloomington

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