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2015 December 29 - 10:01 pm

Rising And Falling

As Economy Improves, College Enrollment Slides

As the U.S. economy continues to recover from the 2008 Great Recession, America’s community colleges continue to experience declining enrollments, overall. However, those overall declines mask great variability in enrollment changes, which in this year’s analysis, varied from 65 percent increase to a 260 percent decrease. In this edition of the Fastest-Growing Community Colleges, we examine changes between the Fall 2013 semester and Fall 2014, the most recent year for which national data are now available. As we carefully point out, this federal accountability collection, part of the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), collects enrollments in programs that lead to degrees and other formal awards. This does not include, for example, the many individuals who engage in professional and personal development activities at these colleges that are not part of formal award programs.


For this analysis, we continue our tradition of including all public, two-year institutions, as well as those public institutions that award “predominantly” associate’s degrees. This latter group includes, for example, all of Florida’s former community colleges, as well as a number of former community colleges in other states, that now offer limited bachelor’s degrees. The criteria for being considered “predominantly associate’s” is having associate’s degrees constitute more than 90 percent of total degrees awarded. Of the 1,092 institutions included in this year’s analysis, 1010 (92.5%) are two-year institutions (associate’s is the highest degree level) and 82 (7.5%) are four-year colleges.

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.

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 2014) enrollment count. We then show the Top 50 institutions in percent change enrollment from Fall 2013 to Fall 2014.

Enrollment Trends

We introduced a new trend chart last year that compared the overall trend in enrollments among these institutions, to the trend in the U.S. Gross National Product (GDP), a measure of the overall condition of the economy. The trend noted last year continues, with overall Community College enrollments declining by another 2.5 percent, while GDP increased by 2.9 percent (number not shown on chart). For this chart, we are comparing each year’s enrollment change to the prior year’s change in GDP, due to the tendency for economic changes to have a lagged impact on enrollments. This continuing relationship demonstrates the negative association between employment conditions and community college enrollments: better economic prospects yield lower enrollments.


We also show, with this year’s analysis, the distribution of percent change by the size categories that we use for the analysis. In all categories, the average overall percent change is negative, with the biggest declines occurring in the smallest size category (enrollments down by 4.7 percent among institution enrolling fewer than 2,500 students. Conversely, the average decrease is smallest (-1.6 percent) among institutions enrolling 10,000 or more students. The distribution of change is illustrated graphically, by institution size category. The no change (0 percent) point in the chart is demarcated with a vertical blue line, which highlights the mass of the distribution occurring below that point.

The general enrollment decreases also show up in the “Top 50” growth charts, in this case, especially for the largest size institutional categories, where the lists include at the bottom institutions that experience relatively modest growth. Within the second to largest category, for example (institutions enrolling between 5,000 and 9,999 students), the 50th “Fastest Growing” college experienced an increase of only 20 students, representing a growth rate of 0.3 percent.

Although we will not be able to analyze Fall 2015 enrollments until this time next year, we already know that the U.S. economy has continued to rebound, finally reaching employment levels that exceed those prior to the great recession. However, there are some weak spots in the economy, including limited wage growth, significant employment in part-time positions, and a high number of individuals who have completely dropped out of the work force. We will find out next year if the community college enrollments will continue to reflect the strong aspects of economic performance, or if the soft spots result in a rebound, or even a flattening out of the decrease.

Victor M. H. Borden is professor of higher education and student affairs, Indiana University Bloomington.

Also from Victor M. H. Borden, Professor of Educational Leadership And Policy Studies, University of Indiana Bloomington

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