Community colleges keep losing students. Can targeted programs change that?

Community college enrollment nationwide appears to have dropped again this fall, compounding dramatic losses seen earlier in the pandemic. Taken together, enrollment at those colleges is on track to drop more than 14 percent in just two years, according to first-look estimates released this week by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

The big idea: But averages don’t tell the full story. Some colleges and even entire states are seeing increased enrollment—especially those with free, state-subsidized, or targeted programs. Michigan, for example, is an outlier with overall undergraduate enrollment up slightly this fall with about half of its colleges reporting, and some community colleges are seeing big jumps.

Those gains haven’t made up for losses earlier in the pandemic, but they provide support for the state’s strategy of heavily focusing on working adults. And they hint at career-focused approaches that might work elsewhere.

“While our community colleges have still seen a decrease to their overall attendance, they haven’t seen the same decrease as other states have during the pandemic,” said Kerry Ebersole Singh, director of Michigan’s Sixty by 30 initiative. 

Ebersole Singh oversees the programs Michigan Reconnect and Futures for Frontliners. Reconnect offers free community college tuition to residents over 25 years old, while the frontliners program does the same for Michiganders who worked in essential businesses during the first part of the pandemic. So far the state has seen 70,000 enroll with the Reconnect program and 15,000 with Frontliners. 

“These programs like Reconnect and Futures for Frontliners have helped to—for lack of a better phrase—stem the bleeding for enrollment,” she said.

Getting interested learners to show up

Work Shift spoke to a range of colleges in Michigan, North Carolina, and Virginia—three states that have recently made big investments in free community college and workforce programs. We also asked CollegeAPP, an analytics company focused on the adult market, to pull data on potential adult learners in two of those states, Michigan and North Carolina.

What emerged is a case for the importance of not only building adult-friendly programs, but putting real effort behind outreach, marketing, and advising.

“There’s brilliant work done on the program side, but colleges build them and then expect adults to find them. That just doesn’t work when you’re 32 years old and you’re working and have kids at home,” said Jack MacKenzie, founder and CEO of CollegeAPP.

“People out there in the world aren’t walking around saying, ‘I should go get a certificate in such-and-such.’”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of adults who both need and want additional education, he said, but they need focused outreach. And that requires getting specific about who exactly to target. 

Across all states about 1 in 5 adults say they want additional education and training, according to CollegeAPP’s surveys. The company develops data tools that help colleges and state agencies identify who those people most likely are, giving each resident an “intent” score of 0 to 100 based on surveys, demographics, and other data.

In Michigan, 1.1 million adults without college degrees have an intent score of 50 or more, or at least a 50-50 chance of being interested in more education. That means 26 percent of the adult population without degrees has decent odds of being recruited. 

In North Carolina, it’s even higher. There, 1.6 million adults without postsecondary credentials have at least 50-50 odds of being interested in additional education. That’s 40 percent of the state’s residents without a degree. (Current education level is unknown for about 20 percent of the population in both states, so the numbers may be higher.) 

Mecklenburg County alone, home to Charlotte, has 160,000 adults without a credential who have good odds of wanting one. 

Grand Rapids, Mich. (Jack Amick/Creative Commons)

On the ground: Much-smaller Muskegon County outside Grand Rapids, Mich., had almost 23,000 residents with 50-50 odds or better of wanting more education, based on surveys and analysis CollegeAPP did in late summer. Muskegon Community College has successfully reached some of them.

Enrollment is up 7 percent this fall over last, which officials say is due in part to the state programs. Roughly 26 percent of the college’s 3,695 students are part of Michigan Reconnect or Futures for Frontliners, said Provost John Selmon. 

Other community colleges in Michigan have also experienced enrollment increases. 

Monroe County Community College has seen a 11 percent increase this fall over the last one. The biggest increase has been among younger students, but adult enrollment also is up 1.7 percent. Last spring was the first time in the college’s history that enrollment increased in the winter over fall, by 3 percent. Summer enrollment grew by 46 percent and the average age at the college has gone up two years. 

Making education ‘real’ for people

Scott Behrens, vice president of enrollment management and student success at Monroe, said the state programs have been helpful, but the college had to put in additional work to bring in those students. 

“When I go and talk in the community about [Reconnect] people don’t know about it, or people have heard about it and just don’t believe it. If it’s free, it must be too good to be true,” he said.

“It’s not enough to just have the program. You have to have the education behind the program as well to help the citizenry understand that it is real and they can do it.”

What’s in a name: Martin Community College in North Carolina had a similar experience. Officials there worked to simplify a host of different workforce funding programs, including the state Longleaf Commitment and Complete grants, by packaging them into a single “Career in a Year” program.

Martin Community College’s homepage prominently advertises its “Career in a Year” program. (Screenshot)

The program provides free tuition for career-oriented credentials and non-credit tracks that can be completed in one year. For the minority of students who do not qualify for the constellation of grants bundled into the program, the college uses institutional funds to cover their remaining tuition. 

High school graduates in the region are projected to decline over the next ten years, and the college had hoped the program would bring in more adult learners, said Wesley Beddard, the president. The college’s home county has about 5,000 adults without degrees who have good odds of wanting one, according to CollegeAPP’s analysis.

So far, the college’s strategy appears to have worked. 

Adult enrollment in workforce programs that are on a traditional academic track—which includes automotive, HVAC, electric, and welding—is up 5 percent this fall from 2020, which Beddard said was not a bad year for the college. The college doesn’t have current enrollment numbers for the non-credit workforce programs because they don’t map neatly onto the semester schedule.

Preliminary numbers from the North Carolina Community College System show that enrollment is up about 1 percent across the state, with EdNC reporting that smaller colleges like Martin are seeing the biggest percentage increases. Thomas Stith, president of the college system, credited the state’s adult learner initiatives at a recent board meeting.

A question of outcomes

Stepping back: Ben Castleman, professor of the economics of education at the University of Virginia, said it’s positive that states are investing in making career-oriented programs more affordable, but that not enough time has elapsed to evaluate whether state-subsidized “free” tuition programs have been truly successful. 

“It’s an open question whether those programs are leading to better labor market opportunities for adults than they would have had in the absence of going back,” he said. “We know from a lot of related and high-quality research that increasing affordability does increase access and it can increase success and attainment for more traditional-age populations.” But the effects for adults are less studied. 

Eboni-Zamani Gallaher, director of the Office for Community College Research and Leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, emphasized that factors well beyond tuition affordability are dampening enrollments. Financial struggles, racial unrest, leadership crises, and environmental disasters have all had a chilling effect on students, she said, especially students of color. 

“People are just in a much more vulnerable position,” she said. State programs can help, but many of them don’t cover the ancillary costs associated with attendance. “The cost of housing, books, and fees is still something you’re on the hook for.”

Short-term Workforce Programs

Shorter-term programs, in theory, can help with that by enabling students to more quickly earn a credential and get back into or move up in the workforce. Research on the impact of short-term credentials thus far has been mixed. While studies have found that students complete at higher rates than those in long-term programs and see a wage increase, in some cases they may still not earn a living wage after getting the credential.

Nevertheless, the preliminary fall numbers from the National Student Clearinghouse found that enrollment in certificate programs inched up, while degree programs continued to decline. Virginia, along with Indiana and a handful of other states, has been a leader in the move to support more short-term credentials—offering assistance to students in high-demand fields through its Fast Forward program. 

At Patrick & Henry Community College, enrollment in the Fast Forward program, which encompasses building trades, manufacturing, plumbing, and other pathways, has been on a steady increase. This fiscal year’s tally is set to surpass last year’s. More than 90 percent of students complete their program, said Rhonda Hodges, vice president of workforce, economic, and community development at the college. And because of the state’s G3 grants for students in high-demand fields, 94 percent of them do so at no cost.

Virginia’s G3 grants cover tuition for lower- and middle-income residents who pursue credentials in high-demand fields. (Screenshot)

Two pathways: The programs covered by G3 grants are all for-credit programs, but states are exploring ways to better support non-credit pathways as well. Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana, for example, evaluates industry certifications and other noncredit credentials and ensures that relevant ones count toward certificate programs covered by the state’s Workforce Ready Grant program. 

Recent research by the nonprofit Opportunity America shows that 54 percent of students at community colleges are in job-focused or workforce programs. That breaks down to 34 percent in credit-bearing programs and 20 percent in noncredit programs. 

Noncredit programs “are much more nimble and agile,” said Tamar Jacoby, president of Opportunity America. “If I’m tomorrow’s widget and I come to you at the college and say I want to set up a welding program, the credit side of the college is going to say, ‘Come back in two years. We have to get faculty approval, we have to get state approval, we have to get accreditor approval.’”

But making noncredit programs free through state or institutional funds could raise quality concerns, Jacoby said. Students and companies typically won’t pay for a program if it’s not useful, exerting a sort of market discipline on paid programs. Taking away that market pressure could allow poor programs to proliferate. 

Parting thought: Ebersole Singh, director of Michigan’s subsidy programs—which are for credit-bearing options—emphasized the importance of not just completion, but career outcomes. The programs are designed to  benefit residents and the state economy as well. 

“Compared to other Midwest states, we are not in the top of that as it relates to postsecondary attainment,” she said.

“It was really two-fold, not only looking at a way to empower individuals with postsecondary degree attainment, but also being sure that our businesses have the talent they need to compete in today’s economy.”  

Elyse Ashburn contributed reporting and data analysis to this story.

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