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2012 November 26 - 12:00 am

ANALYSIS: Bye-Bye Boom Times


Bye-Bye Boom Times
Community College Enrollment Dips From Record Highs
By Victor M. H. Borden

After seven years of growth, enrollment at the nation’s public, two-year and associate’s colleges dropped slightly between 2010 and 2011. That appears to be true for at least the enrollment reported to the federal Department of Education, which surveys institutions regarding their enrollment in programs and courses that can lead to a degree or other formal award.


Still On
An Upward Arc

CHARTS: Fastest-Growing Community Colleges, 2012 edition:


But, as with all such statistics, there are many caveats. First, the data reported through the federal IPEDS (Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System) survey represents a fall semester snapshot of enrollment in credit-bearing classes. Second, the data are preliminary and will be revised slightly, most likely upwards, when the final numbers are in. Third, it is getting increasingly difficult to reconcile enrollments reported through the IPEDS survey and those reported by institutions on their own websites as part of public state-level data collections. In my discussions with colleagues who provide the data, I found that there were often questions, for example, as to whether high school students taking college-level courses at their high schools (often called something like “dual credit” or “concurrent enrollment”), are included in the reported data: sometimes they are and sometimes they are not.

The nationally available data used for this analysis, the Fall Enrollment Survey of the Integrated Postsecondary Data Set is collected by the U.S. Dept. of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). As noted, it is based exclusively on students enrolled in courses that lead to a postsecondary degree or other formal award and so does not include instruction and training for those who participate in the broad range of professional and personal development activities offered by these institutions.

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 public institutions that offer predominantly associate-level degrees along with other less-than-four-year certificate programs. A total of 1,119 qualifying institutions appear in both the Fall 2010 and 2011 surveys meeting these conditions, which is 14 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 websites often show more inclusive enrollment figures, that is, not just counting students enrolled in courses that can be used to matriculate 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 remove the institution from the list altogether. In this year’s verification process, I found it particularly difficult to verify enrollments among the growing number of postsecondary technology centers that are affiliated with K-12 education systems.

We measure growth in this analysis as a percent change between Fall 2010 and Fall 2011 enrollments. Because relatively small changes at smaller institutions produce large percentage changes, we stratify the lists into four categories of institutional size (< 2,500; 2,500-4,999; 5,000-9,999; and 10,000 +). As expected, the leading percentage increases are highest among the smallest-sized institutional category and lowest among the largest-sized institutional category.

Enrollment Trends

When assembling the charts, I noticed that the percentage changes for the fastest-growing institutions were not generally as large as in previous years. Indeed, with the exception of the smallest sized institutions, the Top 50 lists include at the bottom institutions that grew by as little as 2.1 percent. This “softness” in enrollment growth is evident in the aggregate numbers, which currently show a 1.7 percent decline in enrollments within our target group. Table 1 compares this change to those of institutions in other sectors. Comparatively, four-year institutions in the public and private, non-profit sectors experienced slight growth of a similar magnitude (1.4 percent and 1.7 percent, respectively). However, enrollment decreased at an even larger rate within the for-profit sector, where it was down 1.8 percent among four-year and less than 2-year institutions, and down by 6.8 percent at 2-year institutions. Table 1  also shows that the public, 2-year and “associate’s” colleges we focus on in this analysis, represent 16 percent of all postsecondary institutions but enroll 36 percent of all students. In contrast, for-profit institutions represent nearly half (47 percent) of all institutions but enroll only 11 percent of all students, with the smallest number of students enrolled in the largest group of for-profit institutions: those offering less than 2-year degrees (that is, certificates that required less than two years to complete).

Table 2 summarizes the aggregate change in numbers of institutions and enrollments within the size categories we use to array the institutions that experienced the largest enrollment growth. In terms of the distribution of institutions, the smallest size category (enrollment<2500) includes about one-third of all institutions but enrolls only 6 percent of students. The other three groups are similarly sized, although the large institution group (enrollment>10,000) is the smallest among the three but accounts for almost 60 percent of all enrollments among these institutions. The shifts in enrollment among these groups occur for two reasons: the individual institutions may enroll more or fewer students; and the institutions, as they grow larger or smaller, shift from one category to another.

Display 1 graphically portrays the trend in enrollment among these institutions over the past five years. The rate of growth increased from 2007-08 to 2008-09, slowed but was still positive from 2009-10 and declined slightly from 2010-11. The bottom two charts in the display show that the large increases witnessed among the largest-sized institutions flattened completely and the most notable decrease occurred in the next largest-sized group. The display also shows that the decline in small-sized institutions that was evident in the earlier years of the series (when institutions were “growing into the next category”) was also curtailed.

The final chart, Display 2, reveals that the enrollment decline noted this past year is entirely among full-time students, which declined by 6 percent, compared to a very slight increase in part-time students (+.5 percent). It is interesting to note that full-time enrollments had been growing at a faster rate than part-time enrollments between 2008 and 2010, that is, during the most difficult economic years. The more recent decline, as well as the even larger decline in enrollments among the even more vocationally focused for-profit sector, may be a sign of slightly better economic conditions this past year. Given the increasingly limited public funding available to public colleges and universities to support an increase in demand, this may well be a hopeful note for all parties.

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

It’s YOUR TURN:  CCW wants  to hear from you!
Q:  Is slowing enrollment on your camous a sign of an improving economy in your region?
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