Searching for Solutions to Declining College Attendance

Pam Sornson, JD

Pam Sornson, JD

October 4, 2022

None too soon, colleges are convening with economic and workforce development partners to discuss declines in student enrollments. On November 8th, beginning at 8:00 AM, Pasadena City College will host its 4th annual Future of Work Conference to engage with industry, government, and business leaders who are focused on the higher education sector. Among several relevant topics, they will be discussing the significance of declining enrollments in community colleges and strategies to address that concern.

 

Community Colleges Affected

Community college enrollments dropped significantly at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, as schools closed to protect against spreading that disease. The declines in enrollment in fall 2020 and through 2021 were expected as the pandemic continued. However, having access to vaccines and as a growing percentage of the population was vaccinated, colleges were hoping for an upturn in enrollments for on-site attendance by spring 2022. Many, if not most, industry observers also expected that enrollments would rise again throughout 2022 as the world returned to its “new normal.”

That did not happen. In previous years, when events such as economic downturns caused comparable public distress, college enrollments typically rose as newly unemployed people looked for new avenues of employment. Circumstances specific to the pandemic interfered with that typical enrollment trajectory:

Students or potential students who were parents had children at home who needed care.

Those who relied on public transportation elected not to mingle with potentially unprotected strangers.

And many elected to pursue opportunities for newly available employment instead of returning to school. Employers who desperately needed staff to recover their business were paying higher wages and offering better benefits than they had in the past. For some people, a higher paycheck immediately was more valuable than upskilling or retraining for a new occupation.

The current decline, now at 7.4% since spring term 2020, is continuing a trend that began in 2012. Community colleges have absorbed the majority of that decline, with their enrollments accounting for 5% of that loss. The challenge for all participants in the Community College arena – schools, businesses, and governments – is to find ways to attract those students back to school.

 

Reversing the Decline

How to slow or reverse the enrollment decline is the main topic of college conversations these days. Schools have implemented successful student engagement strategies for many years, so they already have systems and protocols in place. However, the potential student landscape has changed due to the pandemic and the workforce and economic evolutions that it caused or affected. Student engagement staff now need to modify their practices to reflect their future students’ new expectations and demands. Suggestions about what those modifications might be are many and varied:

Expanding options for attendance will be key to the success of any outreach project. Students now expect at least some part of their educational journey to be through online learning and/or work-based learning.

Provide solutions to their challenges. Potential learners who understand college-based support options for financial aid, child care, and transportation, to name just three, have more tools available with which to craft their college journey.

Emphasize the value of a college education. While, yes, many jobs and occupations currently pay well without requiring any level of higher education. However, the majority of college graduates will earn significantly more than their high school graduate colleagues over the course of their career, in some cases, by $500,000 or more.

Open the strategy to include non-traditional learners, too. In many ways, the pandemic has already created a “non-traditional” college experience. Where students typically attended classes and sometimes lived only on campus, today, they can participate from virtually anywhere and access program materials at virtually any time. Consequently, the “potential student” population is significantly larger now than it was before COVID hit.

One entity focused on non-traditional college activities is Modern Campus, a think tank of higher education professionals. Through its online publication, The evoLLLution, the organization invites its members to contribute their personal and professional perspectives about obstacles and expansions in today’s higher education markets. Its Editor in Chief, Amrit Ahluwalia, shared his invaluable insights in a podcast conversation with Salvatrice Cummo, the podcast host and PCC’s Vice President of the Economic and Workforce Development Division.

 

Perhaps most importantly, educators and education administrators must engage with all participants in the economic and workforce development spheres of influence. The members of the National Governors Association advocate developing pathways for education, industrial, and economic development constituents to work together to achieve a well-educated and well-employed population. Their strategy pursues three critical objectives through ten articulated pathways:

The Objectives:

Build a lifelong learning ecosystem

Ensure technological resiliency

Fund and maintain comprehensive support.

The Pathways:

Align leadership in all sectors toward the same goals.

Develop a data infrastructure to track progress and direct decision-making.

Build a “credential bridge” to connect industry to education.

Focus on funding workforce needs and training.

Build technology resources to increase and maintain digital literacy.

Access employer, business, and industry participants as teachers and consultants.

Be a model employer – demonstrate through leadership and practices how the modern workforce should work.

Focus on funding life-long learning opportunities.

Discover and remove barriers that prevent access to higher education.

Encourage flexibility throughout the workforce development and employment systems to accommodate the changing needs of the evolving labor force.

Of course, the actual process of creating these pathways will be a collaborative endeavor encompassing the efforts and contributions of all sector participants. Each pathway will reflect the specific nuances, resources, and expectations that are unique to the people and entities involved. And the pathways themselves will continuously evolve as new resources and evolving expectations emerge.

 

The global community is struggling with many significant challenges. However, from those challenges, opportunities are materializing. The higher education sector has the capacity to address its declining enrollment problem while building an even better, more productive, and more successful workforce training environment. The Future of Work Conference on November 8th will explore these and other options and opportunities to entice new students to college and develop the new labor force that tomorrow’s economy requires.

 

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