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By fall 2009, the economic recession that started almost two years previously had a dramatic and unforeseen impact on community colleges. In particular, these changed economic circumstances had been broadly viewed as spurring major enrollment increases across the country. These enrollment increases were coupled with widespread funding reductions. In an attempt to better understand how community colleges responded to the economic maelstrom, the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) surveyed its member institutions to examine changes in enrollment, local factors contributing to enrollment shifts, and the lessons learned from their experiences. We found the following.
Changes in Enrollment
- Nationally, the number of students enrolled in credit-bearing courses at community colleges in fall 2009 increased by 11.4% from fall 2008 and 16.9% from fall 2007.
- Full-time enrollment at U.S. community colleges increased 24.1% in a 2-year time period from fall 2007 to fall 2009.
- The largest percentage change from fall 2007 to fall 2009 occurred in U.S. towns and in the Rocky Mountain region.
Factors Contributing to Enrollment Increases
The predominant factors perceived to influence the increased fall 2009 enrollments identified by respondents included the following.
The Availability of Workforce Training
- Increased unemployment for workers reinforced the realization that a college certificate or degree was important for obtaining a job.
- Retooling—or enhancing a current skill set—was important for job retention as well as for preparing for career changes.
- The limited fiscal resources of previously fiscally secure families positioned community colleges as a viable option due to comparably lower tuition and fees.
Outreach to the Community
- Students saw value because of marketing and advertising campaigns that highlighted institutional quality and created general awareness of campus offerings.
- Partnerships with business, industry, and high schools expanded course and programmatic options available at community colleges.
- At some campuses, new construction allowed for increased capacity to provide new or additional courses, while at others existing capacity limited the number of students colleges could serve.
- Enrollment caps at 4-year institutions limited opportunity for some students who, in turn, attended community colleges.
From their own perspective, community colleges learned some valuable lessons during the fall 2009 enrollment increase, including but not limited to the following.
- Encourage potential students to apply early for financial aid.
- Use data from multiple sources to respond to changes in demand.
- Reach out to the community—including but not limited to underserved populations, high schools, and job placement centers—to promote the value of a community college education.
- Maintain flexibility in institutional operations to be better prepared to respond to dramatic environmental changes.
- The need for further education and training is occasionally unexpected. As such, all citizens should be made aware of the federal financial assistance programs.
- Improved transfer and articulation policies will be critical in ensuring that some community college students are able to achieve their educational aspirations.