Community Colleges See Enrollment Increase in Economic Downturn

Of the Obama administration’s many to-do-list items, an economic stimulus package is right at the top. Many industries have their hopes tied to a bill that can affect a number of sectors in the economy and help reverse the recession. Wound up in the economic recovery are community colleges, which are set to help retrain a workforce with 21st-century education and skills.

This month we talked to Norma G. Kent, vice president for Communications at the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC). Founded in 1920, AACC is the “primary advocacy organization for community colleges at the national level and works closely with directors of state offices to inform and affect state policy.” Kent discussed the correlation between the recession and community college enrollment and how community colleges can be a part of our country’s economic recovery. Her bottom line: “Community colleges are key to the recovery and [we] need to support them.”

Are community colleges seeing an increase in enrollment in response to the economic downturn?

Norma Kent:
They are. Even before the economy got so dire, they were seeing an up-tick. We did an informal survey of various colleges last fall, and we have reports of anywhere from one percent increase to double digits. And that was before the economic downturn.

Historically what we know is that when the economy isn’t doing well, we get an up-tick in enrollment. With it in as much in turmoil as it currently is, we estimate that the eight to 10 percent that we estimated last fall is even more so. In fact, we have gotten reports from colleges that that is the case.

So historically, yes, when the economy isn’t doing well, we do get an up-tick, and because it is so extreme, it probably is even higher than we currently know.

What do you think are some of the reasons so many adults are enrolling in community colleges now?

Norma Kent:
It really is a mixed bag. Relative to the economy, a lot of the adult learners that are thrown out of work — perhaps they are in industries that aren’t doing so well, like the auto industry and so forth — they can read the handwriting on the wall and see that more than likely they aren’t going to be getting jobs in that same career field. So they’re looking for opportunities to re-skill. They may be looking for a whole new career path at community colleges because they’re convenient, close by, affordable, and more often their choice.

But at the same time, what we call “traditional students” are also coming to community colleges because tuition has just gotten so high. Community college may be the most affordable option they have.

And do you see this as a regional thing or more across the board?

Norma Kent:
Oh, no, across the board. It will vary in intensity depending on where you are.

Many colleges and universities are facing budget cuts this year. What is the situation for community colleges?

Norma Kent:
Well, it’s tough. You know, we get close to 60 percent of our operating funds from state and local sources, and if you’ve been following what’s going on in the states, you know that they are in very difficult times and are looking for places to cut. And the areas that they do cut are areas that they consider discretionary, though they ought not to be, but higher education is considered discretionary. So, that’s where they look. We’ve already had reports from various other colleges that not only were their ‘09 budgets cut, but they’ll likely to be looking at mid-year rescissions as well.

What kind of solutions will be proposed to the budget cuts? Will we see a decrease in instructors?

Norma Kent:
Typically, they will likely freeze hiring. They will likely freeze travel. They will take a lot of steps like that before they will actually try to get into the instructional side of the house. But it is bound to affect that because even though they don’t do caps in terms of enrollment, if you can’t hire enough instructors, if you don’t have enough space for class sessions — you’ve got a de facto cap.

We know in California, for example, where we have over 100 community colleges, that the two major university systems are already saying that they are going to cut enrollment six percent. Well, you know where those people are going to go. And while as part of our mission we believe in access so strongly, that we would not put a cap [on enrollment] like that, in effect it’s the same thing if you have more students than you have resources.

Are community colleges looking for some kind of relief from the proposed stimulus package Congress is working on?

Norma Kent:
You can go to our Website, under our government relations sections, and what we have proposed in terms as a community college role in an economic stimulus [ Documents/obama_stimulus_letter.pdf]. So, yes, we have put forward a number of things that we think are critically important to community colleges.

At the same time, community colleges are important to recovery generally. We’ve got to get people back to work, and some of those people need the tools and skills [community colleges have to offer].

We’ve heard in the news about a community college-centric recovery.

Norma Kent:
One thing that the Obama team has proposed is activities focused on infrastructure rebuilding. That means that in some of the trades programs that community colleges offer, like construction and others — welding, those kinds of things — there likely would be a higher demand. For those who are paying attention to what programs are being offered, and that sort of thing, that would be quite relevant.

It’s an interesting thing, [in the aftermath of hurricanes down south] when community colleges started to rebuild and come back, they started to put more of an emphasis on some of the trades programs like construction and so forth because in their region there was a lot of that going on, and it was in high demand. There were programs because they couldn’t get enough skilled construction workers. The interesting thing is that while that was a very devastating thing to the colleges, because they were sort of ahead of the curve in what’s going to be coming next, it may in some ways have been a benefit to them. So it is kind of an interesting juxtaposition how the focus has flipped.