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2014 February 17 - 12:00 am

ANALYSIS: A Downward Trend

Photo courtesy of City Colleges of Chicago 
Olive-Harvey College teaches students in transportation and logistics.

A  N  A  L  Y  S  I  S

A Downward Trend
As The Economy Improves and GDP Grows,
Enrollment Heads in Opposite Direction

By Victor M. H. Borden
Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies
Indiana University Bloomington

The ongoing recovery from the Great Recession is defined by increases in the U.S. Gross Domestic Product (GDP). It is accompanied by increases in employment levels and corresponding decreases in unemployment. But as most of us know, many firsthand, the recovery has been uneven, with employment recovering or expanding in some sectors and declining in others. Community colleges have always played an important role in meeting workforce needs through education and training. Like all postsecondary institutions, community colleges also provide a productive haven during recessionary times for people who have lost jobs or those who have yet to obtain productive work. That is, community college students can obtain marketable skills, especially for emerging professions, at a relatively low cost during low-employment periods and be prepared for jobs as the economy picks up.

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In this year’s analysis of enrollment changes at the nation’s community colleges, we examine in detail changes from Fall 2011 to Fall 2012, the most recent years for which comparable national data are available. As always, we use the data collected by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) through the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). As noted in the Dec. 9 Fastest Growing Community College special report, the 17-day federal government shutdown in October delayed the release of these data by almost two months. The article also noted that changing demographics among high school graduates, marked by numerical declines and substantial increases in diversity, has begun to impact postsecondary enrollments overall and community colleges in particular. In this analysis, we examine the extent of this impact, as well as the association between enrollment changes and the economic recovery.

The summary tables accompanying this introductory analysis, as well as the detailed institutional tables, are based on the IPEDS Fall Enrollment data collected by NCES. As we note every year, the IPEDS definitions and counting rules present challenges for community colleges. Specifically, the IPEDS survey requests enrollment information for students who are “enrolled for credit,” that is, enrolled in “courses or programs that can be applied towards the requirements for a postsecondary degree, diploma, certificate, or other formal award.” This definition has always been problematic due to the diversity of community college educational offerings. The continuing expansion of educational modes of delivery has made this even more difficult, as exemplified by the growth of college level courses offered through high schools, commonly called concurrent enrollment or dual credit.

Most postsecondary institutions have developed consistent practices for reporting enrollment through the IPEDS surveys. However, they often are subject to different reporting rules for state-level accountability. Some states have aligned their enrollment reporting so that state-level and federal-level data are identical. For many states this is not the case and the numbers reported through IPEDS differ from those found within state accountability systems. Indeed, one mechanism we use for verifying the largest changes in enrollment is to examine state data systems to see if at least the magnitude of changes is similar. As in past years, we eliminate from our lists institutions for which the federal and state data are not in alignment. This year, we made a couple of exceptions. Specifically, for three cases where campuses that were previously reported separately were combined into a single count, we pooled the Fall 2011 data across campuses to compare with the Fall 2012 data. We did this for Georgia Military College, Metropolitan Community College (Kansas City, Mo.) and Ivy Tech Community College (Ind.) Among these three, only the change for Georgia Military College was still large enough to make our lists.

We continue our practice this year of segmenting institutions by size (<2,500; 2,500-4,999; 5,000-9,999; and 10,000+) according to the most recent year’s (Fall 2012) enrollment count. We then show the Top 50 institutions in percent change enrollment from Fall 2011 to Fall 2012.

Enrollment Trends

We include in this article an updated version of the table we have included for a number of years that examines the changes in numbers of institutions and total enrollments according to institutional sector. The sector distinction within IPEDs reflects both the control (public; private, non-profit; and private, for-profit) as well as the highest degree level conferred (4-year, bachelor’s or higher; 2-year (associates), or less than two-year). We modify that characterization by distinguishing between public, 4-year institutions that confer predominantly associate degrees and those that confer predominantly higher level degrees. We do this because a growing number of community colleges (currently 80) have added four-year degrees to their program offerings and so are technically categorized within IPEDs as a 4-year institution. The combination of public
2-year and 4-year/predominantly associates institutions represent the community college sector and are combined in the top panel of Table 1 (see page 10).

The data in Table 1 show that both the number of and enrollment at community colleges has declined overall. This decline falls entirely among the majority of these institutions that have retained their 2-year status, that is, those that do not offer any bachelor’s degree programs. This is slightly misleading because the gain among the 4-year primarily associates institutions is due to the shifting of institutions from the 2-year to the 4-year category. In comparison, the traditional public 4-year sector experienced a very small increase in enrollments (0.2%) and there was an even more significant enrollment decline among private, for-profit institutions (-8.2%) led by declines in the 2-year institutions among this group (-15.9%).

The top portion of the graphical display shows that this most recent decline was more than double the percentage decline we reported last year (3.4% compared to 1.6%). The long-term trend also shows that the recent decline is almost a mirror image of the relatively large increases for the two years before. In this year’s trend analysis, we extend the time series back to 2002, the least year for which there was an overall decline, albeit a very small one (-0.1%). We also add to our graph a trend line of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product. Specifically, we use a version of the measure that controls for inflation and we lag the measure by a year (for example, the 2009 point is the 2008 value). By doing so, we see an almost perfect inverse relationship between change in the Gross Domestic product and change in community college enrollment during the recession and recovery. It appears that the significant growth in community college enrollment from 2008 to 2010 is linked to the occurrence of the Great Recession and that recent declines are linked to the ongoing recovery. It is interesting to note, however, that during the period of steady increases in GDP from 2002 to 2007, community college enrollments did not respond with the same sensitivity as they have over the past five years.

We also include in this analysis, a graphical portrayal of the distribution of institutions and enrollments according to the size categories we use in our Top 50 listings. The number of institutions is skewed toward the lower size categories with the largest number appearing in the smallest category (institutions enrolling fewer than 2,500 students.) Conversely, enrollments are skewed toward the largest size categories and especially the group of largest institutions that enroll 10,000 or more students. Our graphical portrayal also shows how these distributions have changed between 2002 and 2012. Specifically, the two smallest-size categories have declined in number of institutions and the larger two categories have grown as individual institutions have generally increased in size and moved into the next category. With this change in distribution, the enrollment has become even more skewed, to the point where the largest category (10,000+) now enrolls 57 percent of all students.

The distribution of institutions and enrollments by size category is further illustrated in Table 2, which shows the change over the past year in the numbers (Fall 2011 to Fall 2012). In terms of both number of institutions and total enrollment, the largest declines are within the second to largest size category (institutions with enrollments between 5,000 and 9,999), followed by the largest-size category. It is important to remember that this shift is often a result of institutions moving from one category to another as their enrollment increases or declines. Also, despite the decline in the two largest-size categories, they enroll the vast majority of community college students (81%).

The final chart of our trend analysis examines the recent trend (2008 to 2012) in full- and part-time enrollments. Last year, we noted that the decline was entirely among part-time students, with the full-time counts having increased slightly (+0.6%). The part-time decline across the most recent two years was even slightly larger than the prior decline (-6.0% compared to -5.8%) but now the full-time enrollments have declined as well (-2.7%). Whereas the part-time changes may be more closely associated with the economic recovery, it is possible that the more recent changes in full-time enrollments additionally reflect the declining numbers of traditional-age high school graduates. In fact, the number of high school graduates, nationwide, declined between 2010 and 2011 for the first time since the early 1990s.

In the lists that are part of our report, we see which institutions have managed to experience enrollment increases during this period of decline.

We close by noting that the declines are further manifest in the range of increases we see this year in comparison to year’s past. Comparing the lists from the issue that documented the overall 3.1% increase from 2009 to 2010 to this year’s lists, the median rate among these fastest growing institutions are: for the <2,500 category, 26.9% (then) v. 12.8% (now); for the 2,500-4,999 category, 12.5% (then) v. 3.1% (now); for the 5,000-5,999 category, 11.0% (then) v. 3.7% (now); and for the 10,000+ category, 9.7% (then) v. 2.8% (now). Indeed, for this year’s 10,000+ list, the last of the Top 50 fastest growing institutions experienced only a 0.2% increase and only two other institutions (that is, ranks 51 and 52, not shown) experienced an increase. The remaining 180 (78%) of the 232 institutions in this category experienced enrollment declines, as did 172 (70%) of the 246 institutions in the 5,000-9,999 category, 211 (77%) or the 275 institutions enrolling 2,500-4,999 students, and 235 (66%) of the 354 institutions in the <2,500 enrollment category.

We will be back next year to see if this recent trend continues.

IT'S YOUR TURN: CCW wants to hear from you!

  1. Q: What kind of pressure is declining enrollment putting on your college?
  2. Q: Is the improving economy having and effect on enrollment at your college?

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