Understanding enrollment declines and what’s ahead: Key podcast


Faculty and college enrollments—significantly at neighborhood faculties—proceed to plummet. Have they bottomed out? Will they get better if the economic system cools off as anticipated? Has enrollment dropped to a brand new decrease plateau that’s prone to be the baseline going ahead?

A recent episode of The Key, Inside Larger Ed’s information and evaluation podcast, explored the 7.5 percent decline that college enrollments have suffered because the pandemic, with a concentrate on neighborhood faculties that enroll working learners and first-generation college students, which have been particularly onerous hit.

The dialog featured Joe Garcia, chancellor of the Colorado Neighborhood Faculty system, and Nate Johnson, a researcher and policy analyst whose agency, Postsecondary Analytics, advises states, foundations and companies on education and workforce policy.

They surmise that among the enrollment losses of the final two years could symbolize a brand new decrease baseline going ahead and talk about the implications for establishments and college students.

An edited transcript of the podcast is beneath.


Inside Larger Ed: Lots of people in larger education anticipated, or no less than hoped, that enrollments that had been depressed by the pandemic would have begun to rebound by now. So the most recent knowledge from the Nationwide Pupil Clearinghouse, about spring 2022 enrollments, had been one thing of a intestine punch. Have been the 2 of you stunned that enrollments haven’t recovered? And what do you take into account to be the main elements suppressing them?

Nate Johnson: I didn’t actually have a selected expectation, as a result of my understanding of what we will count on for enrollments was damaged a few years in the past by the COVID pandemic. I’d been protecting observe since about 2012 of the change in unemployment charges from Might to Might, which ended up being a fairly good predictor of fall enrollment charges at neighborhood faculties, with a couple of 2.5-percentage-point enhance or lower in enrollments at neighborhood faculties for each percentage-point change within the unemployment price.

What we had with COVID was a couple of 13-point enhance in Might to Might unemployment charges, which utilizing that mannequin would have predicted a couple of 40 % enhance in neighborhood school enrollments, which clearly wasn’t what occurred. As an alternative you had a extremely steep decline. At that time, I didn’t actually know what was going to occur subsequent. That was going to rely upon the economic system, on what neighborhood faculties did, on the state of the pandemic.

Within the final couple of years since 2020, when the pandemic first hit, the declines in neighborhood school enrollment have truly been type of what you’ll count on. In 2020, the unemployment price was 13.2 %. In Might 2021, it declined to five.8 %, which ordinarily can be a change the place you’ll count on a giant lower in neighborhood school enrollments, due to the decline in unemployment. This Might, it’s down one other 2.2 factors, to three.6 %.

The declines we’re seeing now are per that historic sample. However given how sudden and dramatic the change was in 2020, I can perceive the optimism, and shared it to some extent myself, that there can be some rebound from the well being penalties of the pandemic, if we didn’t know something about what occurred earlier than Might 2020.

If we’re simply trying on the unemployment price, it could appear like it was at a historic excessive, and we’re within the midst of an enormous recession and 13 % unemployment price. After which when that goes down, additional drops in neighborhood school enrollment can be about what you’ll count on. It’s virtually like there was a brand new stage set. We could return to will increase in enrollment when that unemployment price begins going again up. However I don’t know but.

Inside Larger Ed: Joe, how does it look on the bottom the place you might be in Colorado?

Joe Garcia: It’s difficult right here on the bottom, as a result of it’s a confluence of occasions that we’ve by no means seen earlier than. As each of you had been speaking about, previously, when the economic system took a downturn and fewer jobs had been out there and unemployment charges went up, school enrollment typically went up. However right here, in the beginning of the pandemic, when unemployment charges had been excessive, we thought we would see extra college students returning, however these college students confronted challenges. They needed to cope with children who couldn’t go to high school, transportation programs they didn’t wish to make the most of. And so we noticed a decline in employment but in addition a decline in enrollment. These two hardly ever go collectively.

Then because the pandemic started to emerge, once more we thought we’d see enrollments begin to climb. However there was such a rise in prevailing wages and demand for jobs, even for employees who didn’t have a whole lot of expertise. So a lot of our college students and potential college students noticed the chance to all of a sudden make $16 or $18 now or get a $500 bonus for coming again. And they also mentioned, “Why would I’m going to school now—now’s the chance to make up for among the misplaced wages over the past yr and a half?” After which let’s not lose sight of the truth that for years prior to the pandemic we’d been shedding enrollment. Not on the identical price, however we had a sturdy economic system, we had already begun to see a decline within the variety of white highschool graduates nationally since 2012. We’re seeing rising competitors for these college students, for college kids who we formally assumed had been ours. However now the 4 years, the regional complete [public universities], everyone was going after the scholars who was once assumed to be neighborhood school materials

Inside Larger Ed: We clearly don’t have a ton of solutions but, and the good factor is to be humble about what we attempt to assert with confidence. We had a cataclysmic occasion that introduced enrollment down, then on the level the place we would have began seeing some rebound, we noticed the economic system get better, and didn’t see the countercyclical conduct we usually see. Individuals on that education/work bubble selected to take jobs fairly than going and getting extra education and coaching at a neighborhood school.

So recognizing that there was a decline main into the pandemic, then a giant drop due to the pandemic, then a scarcity of restoration because of the improved job market, how doubtless is it in your view that we’re at a brand new decrease plateau? And what are the implications of that?

Particularly provided that earlier than the pandemic, we had been speaking about how we wanted extra People to get some type of postsecondary education and coaching. We had been deeply involved about fairness, which was solely strengthened by the occasions of a pair summers in the past. The place do you suppose we’re locally school sector, significantly extra broadly inside the group of underrepresented college students who’ve traditionally been most excluded from larger education?

Garcia: We’re not in place, candidly. We [recently] had all 13 of our presidents earlier than our board presenting their budgets for subsequent yr and all of them had been projecting flat and even continued slight declines in enrollment. We not solely face the issue with college students, we additionally face an issue with our personal staff. A few our bigger faculties mentioned that their workforce, college, employees, directors, had turned over 23 % in a single yr.

We’re not capable of employees the way in which we must always, and significantly in areas like monetary support and pupil assist providers, precisely the areas that should be absolutely staffed to serve the populations that may shut the fairness gaps we’ve been so centered on lately. And now we’re starting to see these gaps widen as soon as once more, that’s not place for our faculties, and it’s not place for our nation.

Johnson: One vibrant spot is pupil demand in fields like licensed well being professions, expertise, building trades. There’s a whole lot of pupil demand in these areas. However these are the costliest fields for neighborhood school instruction. You need to rent individuals who have these expertise. And the rationale there’s a whole lot of pupil demand is as a result of wages are excessive in these areas. So it’s type of a self-reinforcing cycle. Until you may pay a nurse what a hospital pays a nurse, or pay an electrician what they’ll make wiring homes or putting in photo voltaic panels, then you definately’re not going to have instructors who can educate college students find out how to do these issues. I feel policy makers must get their heads round the truth that aggressive salaries for instructors within the fields they themselves wish to prioritize goes to require some funding.

Garcia: That’s precisely proper. We can’t discover college, we can’t get a nursing director who must have a doctorate, we can’t get building trainers, as a result of they’re going full pace, and we will’t start to match the wages. And even when we will get the instructors, these profession and technical education applications which might be in such demand are our high-cost applications. We’ve at all times charged just about the identical tuition as our normal education applications. However we’ve cross-subsidized these profession and tech ed applications by way of enrollments in our normal ed applications, that are declining. So we’re getting much less cash, and we have to provide proportionately extra programs which might be the high-cost programs. That may be a actual problem for our faculties.

Inside Larger Ed: Joe, the place are you seeing the largest affect and what are you most apprehensive about when it comes to enrollment?

Garcia: We’re very apprehensive concerning the enrollment of traditional-age college students. We’re seeing fewer enroll within the fall instantly following their commencement. What we noticed this previous two years was a good higher drop within the variety of college students who’re returning for the start of their sophomore semester, as a result of they’re saying, “I’ll cease out as a result of I can get job now that pays $16 or $18 an hour.” These college students could come again, but it surely’s not going to occur in a single day.

And once they come again, they’re going to be searching for coaching in allied well being fields—that are costly to supply and the place we now have the shortages—and in cybersecurity and building and CTE fields, that are costlier, require smaller class sizes, costlier labs and gear, and positively are more durable to search out instructors.

But if you happen to go speak to a legislator or somebody within the governor’s workplace, they are saying, “Give us extra individuals from the expert trades,’” not understanding actually that that prices us extra to supply them. When we now have a protracted ready checklist for a nursing program, the policy makers say, “Why would you’ve got a protracted ready checklist—simply admit extra college students.” We can’t employees up our college and we will’t place them within the hospitals the place they should get the scientific coaching. It’s not that we don’t wish to produce extra nurses, for instance. We’re at capability.

Inside Larger Ed: Nate, what else ought to we be taking note of?

Johnson: I feel the selection framework has shifted in methods which may be lasting fairly than non permanent. Earlier than the pandemic, and nonetheless to some extent, the primary aggressive benefit for neighborhood faculties is that they’re native. You possibly can go there and may get in-person instruction, particularly for normal education courses.

Earlier than the pandemic, [some] public four-year universities had been superb at offering a whole lot of on-line courses, however the overwhelming majority of them weren’t. Most majors you’ll be inquisitive about weren’t out there on-line. Publish-pandemic, every little thing was out there on-line, as a result of it needed to be. Now, these [four-year] establishments have much more capability to supply on-line applications, so neighborhood faculties have misplaced a little bit of that benefit.

Again in 2012, when [the Education Department’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System] first began protecting observe of it, neighborhood faculties had extra on-line college students than four-year public establishments. By 2019, earlier than the pandemic began, four-year faculties had fairly a number of greater than two-year establishments did. They’d outpaced them in providing on-line courses.

Garcia: Actually good factors, Nate. You’re proper, we had been within the lead when it got here to on-line supply 20 years in the past. Our competitors tended to return from the proprietary establishments that had been actually going full-bore on-line.

However now we see four-years who’re taking a look at on-line as a revenue middle, to assist offset losses elsewhere. And so each four-year establishment that didn’t have a web-based program earlier than is creating one. And those who’re out in entrance, the College of Maryland International Campus, or Arizona State or Western Governors, are taking college students who beforehand got here to us.

What they’re providing that we will’t provide was a full four-year diploma on-line. We provided programs, not full applications. Individuals supplemented their conventional instruction with one or two on-line courses. That’s not what individuals wish to do. They need all of their instruction on-line. And those who need it essentially the most are the grownup learners, the working adults, and albeit, they’re those who even have the best problem in being profitable with pure on-line. So we now have to determine not simply find out how to provide on-line, however to be sure that it really works for college kids.

Inside Larger Ed: We talked concerning the pandemic, we talked concerning the job market, we talked concerning the intensified competitors. What we haven’t talked about is the bigger questioning of the worth of going to school. Enthusiastic about what it prices, the chance value and final result. That presumably elements no less than considerably into the dialogue concerning the job market—do I’m going take this $18-an-hour job that Joe was speaking about, versus spending the time to go additional my education which may repay down the street? Do you see that beginning to play a task and if that’s the case, how a lot?

Garcia: Completely. In years previous, it was frequent for us to say, “Everybody ought to go to school; it’s actually necessary to get that postsecondary credential.” However in more moderen years, we’ve heard individuals with very loud megaphones, and usually individuals with school levels, saying, “Faculty isn’t price it, you shouldn’t do it, expertise are extra necessary than levels,” all of these issues that we now have heard, and that it prices an excessive amount of.

Now, a whole lot of occasions, college students keep away from coming to even our neighborhood faculties, the place most low-income college students go at no cost. However all we’ve heard is it’s too pricey, don’t do it. After all, it’s not simply the prices for tuition and costs and books. You talked about the chance value of coming if you happen to might as an alternative be making $16 an hour, and that appears like good cash to you. We attempt to level out, each in the course of the pandemic and after the final recession, the people who find themselves almost definitely to stay employed had been these with a postsecondary credential. It’s nonetheless necessary to guard your self from these downturns, so come to school anyway. And also you don’t must get a four-year diploma in English, you may get a two-year certificates, a nursing credential, a welding credential. These issues will assist.

However typically policy makers who’re most supportive of neighborhood faculties and say, “Go to neighborhood school, it’s cheaper and get a talent,” are the people who neither attended neighborhood school and positively aren’t sending their children there. They’re sending their children to the name-brand four-your residential universities. As a result of there’s worth in that. We do suppose there’s worth in coming to the neighborhood school and getting that short-term certificates, you should have a greater likelihood of getting a living-wage job.

However while you say school isn’t for everyone, some postsecondary education completely is if you wish to compete for a job.

Inside Larger Ed: I wished to return to the subject of fairness that we mentioned briefly. Pre-pandemic, we had been seeing some actual beneficial properties in attainment for underrepresented teams. And it certain appears as if the pandemic and what’s ensued has set again a few of these beneficial properties.

I’m curious how apprehensive you might be, particularly if as Nate was hypothesizing general enrollments have plateaued at a brand new decrease stage. College students of colour and low-income college students are disproportionately represented within the college students who’ve been misplaced. Have these general enrollment losses set again the fairness and attainment targets the system was centered on?

Garcia: Frankly, I’m terrified. I spent a profession engaged on making an attempt to shut these postsecondary attainment gaps that has plagued our nation. It is crucial not simply to underrepresented communities, however to our total nation. After we take a look at the altering demographics, we now have to get extra Black and brown children, significantly younger males, by way of a postsecondary education, as a result of white of us are ageing out of the workforce, and also you’re going to get replaced by Black and brown of us, however provided that these of us have a credential.

And it’s extra doubtless that you simply want a postsecondary credential now than it was while you and I had been getting into the workforce 40 years in the past. We began making some actually hard-fought beneficial properties, however we now have actually seen our instructional programs in our communities transfer backwards, and we can’t afford to let that occur.

The scholars we’re shedding are the scholars who’re most reliant on having a highschool counselor, as a result of they don’t have college-educated mother and father at residence who will help them navigate the system. If throughout these final two years, once they weren’t coming to high school, once they had been doing issues just about, they had been changing into increasingly more disengaged, increasingly more disconnected from the secondary faculties, they had been rather a lot much less prone to make that transition to a postsecondary establishment. And that’s a catastrophe for our economic system.

Johnson: There’s a little bit of excellent information on this story, although I share all of the considerations Joe was speaking about. Completion numbers are usually not down practically as a lot as enrollment numbers are. A few of it may be a lag impact—if no one’s coming in, no one’s going to be going out. However over all, over the past 10 years or so, each completions and completion charges have elevated. That’s good within the sense {that a} larger proportion of people who find themselves beginning are ending, particularly at neighborhood faculties, and particularly amongst Black and Latino populations.

That’s a part of the success of the sorts of efforts Joe and others have been main, but when the variety of individuals coming in continues to say no, it’s not going to be sufficient to maintain up with that.

Then, if we do find yourself in an financial recession, or if the unemployment price ticks up, the silver lining of that in all probability can be some return, which can embrace each first-time-in-college college students and individuals who could have began one thing 5 years in the past after which dropped out to take a $20-an-hour, low-skilled job that now not exists.

Inside Larger Ed: It looks like your overarching sense is that whereas the pandemic could have shaken up that historic hyperlink [between unemployment rates and college-going rates], it doesn’t sound such as you suppose the patterns have been utterly upended. It sounds such as you suppose there’s an inexpensive likelihood that the historic countercyclicality can be sustained, even when perhaps moderated considerably by the worth query and among the different issues that we’ve been speaking about,

Johnson: I’m much less certain about whether or not neighborhood faculties will ever get again that 10 to fifteen % pandemic-related decline. There could also be type of a brand new, decrease base. However barring one other pandemic, or struggle or different noneconomic occasion, I’d be stunned if unemployment charges go up within the subsequent yr and neighborhood school enrollments don’t observe as much as some extent.

Inside Larger Ed: You’ve expressed rather a lot to be involved about on this dialog to date. I wish to focus on the finish on what establishments can, ought to, have to be doing going ahead, assuming there’s no magical turnaround.

Joe, you simply talked about bringing your presidents collectively. What’s your sense concerning the job that the establishments have in entrance of them, and the way in a position they’re to do it, given among the workforce and different belongings you talked about?

Garcia: There’s rather a lot that we will do, and that we now have to do. One is focusing extra on grownup learners. Neighborhood faculties have at all times served grownup learners. However frankly, we had seen the typical age for our college students happening lately as we checked out extra conventional college students. However we’re all competing for conventional college students, and that’s a shrinking inhabitants.

There are a whole lot of adults on the market who would like to have a greater job, an precise profession, and so they can’t do it with out coming again and getting an education. However which means we’ve obtained to vary how we ship instruction, we’ve obtained to do extra on-line, we’ve obtained to supply extra courses within the evenings and the weekends.

And never simply courses, however pupil assist providers. We’ve at all times provided courses and pupil assist and monetary support at occasions that labored for us. We’ve obtained to focus extra on what’s going to work for our college students.

That’s pricey. It takes a whole lot of effort. However that’s the solely manner we’re going to have the ability to maintain enrollment ranges that may permit us to maintain the doorways open. Extra importantly, it’s the one manner we’re going to assist strengthen native economies.

The opposite is larger completion charges. Within the outdated days, after I first began neighborhood school, we had been simply making an attempt to enroll as many college students as we might. We knew we had been going to lose a whole lot of them earlier than commencement, earlier than the tip of their first semester.

Lately, I’ve been happy that we’ve been extra centered on what it takes not simply to enroll college students, however to retain and graduate them. And what we’re now centered on is not only that, however whether or not we’re graduating them with a credential that may permit them to get a living-wage job. We’ve obtained to have that broader focus, if we wish college students to maintain exhibiting up and paying for our providers.

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