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2008 November 30 - 12:00 am

Analysis Has Its Limitations

Analysis Has Its Limitations

By Victor M. H. Borden

Since 2001, we’ve presented to you in this annual analysis: a look at the enrollment growth among America’s community colleges and other public, two-year postsecondary institutions. Like every such analysis, it has its limits. For growth, we consider only change over the most recently available two-year period, in this case from fall 2006 to fall 2007. Perhaps more significantly, for enrollment, we consider only students who are enrolled in courses that can accrue toward an associate degree, certificate or other formal award.

Community colleges and other public, two-year institutions provide a far greater range of services than just courses which lead to degrees and certificates. They serve the citizens of their communities through a broad range of professional and personal development activities, including basic skills and advanced specialized vocational training, as well as English language classes for recent immigrants. They serve lifelong learning needs for individuals with academic backgrounds ranging from high school non-completers to Ph.D. recipients.

So why do we examine just degree/certificate-seeking enrollments? It’s simple: that’s what’s available in terms of national data, specifically the Fall Enrollment Survey of the IPEDS data collection series administered by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), a division of the U.S. Department of Education. 

NCES receives enrollment data from virtually every postsecondary institution in the U.S. and its protectorates. Their high response rate is stimulated by the potential penalty that institutions face for non-compliance. Specifically, they can lose their qualification for enrolling students who obtain federal financial aid.

The IPEDS Enrollment Survey asks for fall semester enrollment and is collected during the spring semester. NCES administers the Web-based survey to more than 7,000 postsecondary institutions. When we conduct our analysis, we use a preliminary release file because not every institution that will eventually reply has yet done so. However, for the type of institutions that we include, the vast majority have responded.

Through the fall enrollment survey, NCES asks institutions to report “all students enrolled in courses creditable toward a diploma, certificate, degree, or other formal award.” That is, they do not currently collect enrollments related to “non-credit” instruction and other types of community college activities. Because non-credit instruction is a very large component of many public, two-year college missions, it is important to note that the survey does not reflect a large portion of many of these colleges’ students.

In our annual analysis, we restrict our attention to institutions that are “Title IV eligible,” that is, those that are accredited by either a regional or specialized postsecondary accreditation agency.

We also consider only those 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.

Our Criteria

A significant number of the nation’s community colleges now offer a limited set of baccalaureate degrees. Although these institutions are technically not two-year institutions, we include them in the analysis. Specifically, we continue a practice we started last year of including institutions that fall within the Carnegie Classification category of “Associates Colleges” even if they are four-year colleges by virtue of offering some baccalaureate degrees. Finally, we include only institutions that reported their enrollments for both the beginning (fall 2006) and ending (fall 2007) points of our one-year time frame.  These criteria yielded a total of 1,153 colleges.

Our criteria for selection include within the analysis pool a number of adult and career technical centers offering postsecondary degrees and certificates, which are associated with K-12 school districts. Many of these centers are new to completing the IPEDS survey and so often change their reporting practices from one year to the next as they “learn the ropes.”  This is one reason why we often find some suspicious growth cases when we first run the numbers (for example, a school that increases its enrollments by a factor of 3 or 4).

We verify the data for these extreme cases by identifying corroborating sources.  We contact individuals at these institutions, check their websites, or look at the data maintained by state and system offices that also survey the institutions regarding enrollment. If we find from these sources that numbers reported through the IPEDS survey are incorrect or misleading, we remove them completely from the analysis. Moreover, if we are suspicious about a case and do not receive a response about the case, we also remove that institution from the analysis. 

During our verification search, we often find some interesting cases that draw our attention to some consequences of viewing enrollment growth in this fashion. In one such case, I asked a colleague at the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges whether the reported growth for Clover Park Technical College, which increased by nearly 27 percent, was real or due to some reporting anomaly. She informed me that the growth was real, but it was largely a result of an increase in part-time students. From her perspective, several other technical colleges in the Washington system had grown more significantly because of larger increases in “credit-hour enrollments” or full-time equivalent (FTE) enrollments, as we college data folk often refer to them. This illustrates another caveat when reviewing these results. Not only do we consider only degree/certificate seeking students, but we count heads regardless of the course load taken.

The bottom line on data integrity is that we do our best to weed out obvious errors but we do not uncover every case. And even if the data are technically correct, they will not necessarily agree with enrollment counts you find on a specific college’s website or when you contact an official at the college who may use different definitions.

We measure growth in this analysis as a percent change between fall 2006 and fall 2007 enrollments.  Because at smaller institutions relatively small numerical changes produce large percentage changes, we stratify the lists by four categories of institutional size (fewer than 2,500; 2,500 to 4,999; 5,000 to 9,999; and 10,000 and more).  As expected, the leading percentage increases are highest among the smallest size institutional category and lowest among the largest size institutional category. 

Overall Enrollment Trends

Continuing a practice we started last year, we examine the overall trends in enrollment growth for this group of institutions first by comparing it to enrollment growth at other types of postsecondary institutions in the U.S. The first summary table shows that the two types of institutions we include in this analysis — four-year colleges and universities that are classified as “associate 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 account for 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 (42 percent) but enroll only four percent of degree/certificate-seeking students.

This first summary table also shows that growth among our target group was similar to that among four-year institutions (2.6 percent compared to 2.9 percent) and that the largest growth (26.2 percent) occurred at the four-year associate’s level institutions.

Only about one-quarter of this growth is due to increased enrollments at these institutions. The majority of this growth is because there are more institutions that fall into this category this year compared to last year (44 as compared to 37). In other words, seven additional public, two-year colleges added baccalaureate degrees to their offerings, moving them into this category.

The second summary table relates to our stratification of institutions by size. It shows that the group containing the largest number of institutions, nearly two-fifths (39 percent) of the total, is the group of colleges with the smallest enrollments (less than 2,500 students). However, due to their small size they enroll a far smaller portion of all students (8 percent). Conversely, the 16 percent of institutions that enroll 10,000 or more students accounts for over one-half (51 percent) of all enrollments. The two pie charts illustrate these inverse proportions in number of institutions compared to proportion of total enrollments by size category. 

The number of institutions in the largest size category experienced the highest growth rate. Again, this is only partly due to enrollment growth at these institutions. It is also due to the addition to this category of six more institution as growth pushed them over the 10,000-student threshold.

Finally, we include in this analysis a set of trend charts that depict the change in number of institutions and enrollments by size category over the past 10 years. There are two notable findings in these charts. First, the most notable growth in degree/certificate-seeking enrollments occurred at large institutions between the years 1999 and 2002. At the same time, there was a concurrent decrease in the number of institutions in the smallest category, although this was accompanied by only a small decline in enrollments at these small institutions.

This suggests that the smallest among these institutions left the pool, either through closings or, perhaps more likely, through mergers. Aside from these rather large changes, the trend charts also place into historical perspective this year’s increases. This past year’s growth in enrollments among the largest institutions is close to the size of increases witnessed during the “boom years” of the late 1990s.

In closing, I noted earlier that a total of 1,153 public, two-year and public, four-year associate’s level colleges entered into this analysis. The 200 institutions featured in these Fastest-Growing lists represent 17 percent of those 1,153 insitutions. It might also be of interest to note that the majority (826 or 72 percent) of institutions grew. These growing institutions averaged a 5.4 percent increase in enrollment. Two of the remaining institutions remained the exact same size, leaving 325 that experienced some level of decrease. These institutions averaged a 5.2 percent decline in enrollments, although the decreases varied widely, from as small as 0.025 percent to a near 60 percent decline. The increases outpaced the declines, yielding the 2.6 percent overall increase in enrollments among these community and other public, two-year colleges.

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

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