It will be interesting to track the current upswing in community college enrollment to see whether the increase is primarily a response to the current lagging economy or the start of a new trend in higher education.
A story in Friday’s Journal-World quoted figures from the Pew Research Center, which reported that college enrollment last year hit an all-time high in America. Almost all of that increase, however, came not at four-year colleges but at two-year community colleges. Enrollment counts aren’t complete for the current school year, but the American Association of Community Colleges reports that many two-year schools have seen growth of 10 percent or more this fall.
A couple of factors appear to be at work. Some students who don’t plan to pursue a four-year degree may be looking at community colleges for vocational or technical training that will increase their chances of getting a job in the current tight market.
For many, however, it’s a simple matter of dollars and cents. According to a study released last week by the College Board, average tuition and fees for a year at a community college were $2,372, compared with an average of $7,020 at public four-year colleges and a whopping $26,000 at private colleges. These students can do the math. Even if they want to get a four-year degree they can save a bundle by attending a community college for two years and then transferring to a four-year school.
There are several lessons in this for higher education policymakers like the Kansas Board of Regents. First, this trend is something to consider as the regents approve higher tuition rates or higher admissions standards for state universities. One of the byproducts of those actions almost certainly will be to drive more students into community colleges. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it could mean that the focus of universities turns more to educating upperclassmen and graduate students.
It also means community colleges would be playing an even greater role in the state’s higher education system. That could become a funding issue. It certainly makes it essential for the state’s higher education system to ensure students can have a seamless transition from community colleges to state universities without losing course credits.
The current trends may be temporary, or they could be signaling a significant shift in how the state’s higher education system operates. Time will tell.