Community college enrollments are down – which may be more evidence that the economy is picking up, experts said.
A Western Piedmont Council of Government study shows a decline in 2013-14 enrollment numbers for the Unifour area community colleges – Caldwell Community College & Technical Institute, Catawba Valley Community College and Western Piedmont Community College – compared to 2008-09 figures.
State budget cuts have played a role, though not necessarily as large as some may think, analysts said.
Cuts that began with the 2008 recession, resulting in fewer courses and faculty downsizings, are “only one factor. It’s not the primary factor,” said WPCOG data analyst Taylor Dellinger. The main reason behind the recent trend is positive, he said.
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“It’s because people have found employment,” he said. “When they’re out of work, a lot of them take continuing education programs to get certificates, diplomas, training that they can use to get a new job. Since the unemployment rate has been dropping in the last year or so, and we know there’s been an increase in the number of people who have been in employed in the region, that means they’re at work instead of taking those classes.”
Mark Poarch, executive vice president of CCC&TI, agreed: “When the unemployment rate is low, our enrollment drops. When unemployment is high, our enrollment increases.”
This trend follows throughout North Carolina and its 58-school community college system, which experienced big enrollment gains in the early years of the recession. Those totals featured a 12.6 percent statewide jump in 2010-11.
The WPCOG study examined the enrollment declines in the context of the bigger-picture impact on graduation rates and jobs, an increasing emphasis in North Carolina.
Targeting improved employment, the state’s 2014-15 community college budget created improved funding for higher-cost health care and technical education programs. That came with a $17 million cut to community colleges overall and increased tuition costs of 50 cents per credit hour for in-state residents.
WPCOG used N.C. Tower System data on rates of employment and wages for associate degree graduates of CCC&TI, CVCC and WPCC.
It found that more than three-fourths of associate degree graduates in 2007-08 were still employed in the state after five years. Mean wages were highest in health care and social assistance, manufacturing and public administration.
“What was the metric of success? Are they getting jobs in the fields they’re supposed to? Are they getting better pay? In the health care field, students seem to get a better start out of the gate with their wages than the others,” Dellinger said.
“There were other sectors where maybe the first year was hard for them to find a job … but eventually, by the fifth year, they were achieving some success, and wages were going up dramatically.”
Of the six program categories examined by WPCOG, continuing education showed the largest drop among the three community colleges. Continuing education, similar to adult education, involves enrollment in courses for college credits.
Boston-based nonprofit Jobs for the Future said North Carolina is one of few states that have been aggressive about improving community college graduation rates.
In December, it singled out Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte as one of five N.C. community colleges that are part of a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation program, Completion by Design, that emphasizes graduation.
Dellinger said this kind of push will continue to be important, adding that community colleges are getting competition “from a lot of for-profit and online colleges that you see on TV all the time. So you have people who are going online for those credits.”
He added that getting enrollments back up is multi-faceted.
“That’s a complicated question because there are several things going on,” he says. “We do know that part of it is cyclical because during past recessions when people lose their jobs, they go back to school to get the training they need to get a job in another field. But there are a couple other factors,” pro and con.
“First of all, coming out of high school you have more people now who are doing the four-year college overall. Another factor is that in a lot of fields today you’re going to need a lot of training other than just high school. ... That would tend to boost those numbers a little bit.”
Reid Creager is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Reid? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Enrollment numbers at the Unifour area community colleges
Continuing education enrollment numbers at the Unifour area community colleges