Community colleges in Ohio see steep drop in enrollment

Community colleges have always been places where students of all ages and backgrounds can gain credit and new skills, especially during an economic downturn. Two-year college enrollment peaked during the Great Recession, and many expected a similar rush during the pandemic.

Instead, community college enrollment continued to fall in Ohio and across the country.

In the fall of 2020, public 2-year community colleges nationwide saw a 10.1% drop in enrollment across the country, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. In Ohio, there was a 6.3% drop.

Community colleges are finding it increasingly difficult to attract students due to the burgeoning labor market, declining high school graduation rates and pandemic fatigue, higher education experts say.

Stephanie Sutton, vice president of enrollment management at Stark State College near Canton, said she doesn’t think prospective students think about their long-term career and life goals. She said many are too worried about their current situation to invest in their education.

“I think we’ve become a just-in-time company,” Sutton said.

Cheap labor, bad for registration

Adult learners often make up a large portion of students attending community colleges, especially during times of economic uncertainty.

Total college enrollment in the United States increased by 3 million during the Great Recession, many of these new students were adult learners, according to a 2018 U.S. Census report. over the age of 25 who returned to university after being in the labor market or who were not previously employed, increased by 30% between 2006 and 2010.

In previous recessions, Sutton said Stark State struggled to keep pace with enrollment. But now there are far more vacancies in many job markets than there are employees capable of filling them, she said.

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As of fall 2018, the college had 11,654 students. This figure fell to 10,596 in the fall of 2021.

“I think even though the economy is precarious, the job market is not,” Sutton said.

C. Todd Jones is the president of the Ohio Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, an organization that lobbies on behalf of independent colleges in Ohio.

He said adult learners often go back to school during a recession or when the economy is bad to get new degrees and skills. When the pandemic hit, Jones noted there wasn’t the same sense of urgency. Many workers were unsure if their job loss was permanent or just until the pandemic subsided.

“For higher education, this wait for workers has lengthened the usual period before people enroll in education and skills development after the onset of the recession,” Jones said.

Enrollment at Stark State has declined by approximately 9% from 2018 to 2021. Other community colleges in the state have seen similar or more pronounced declines.

COVID-19 Pandemic-Related Burnout Leads to Retention Issues

Columbus State Community College was experiencing an increase in enrollment before the pandemic. But once the campus closed in March 2020, many students left and did not return.

As of fall 2018, there were 41,424 enrolled in the college. This number fell to 37,408 in the fall of 2021.

Desiree Polk-Bland, vice president of student affairs at Columbus State, said she’s found the pandemic has proven to be a driving factor in declining student chat retention.

The college surveyed its students and found that while most had internet access, students might not have access to their own personal devices.

“We found that we had a definite mix of students who liked and enjoyed online education and those who were really waiting for more of our in-person sections to come back,” Polk-Bland said.

Columbus State has been working to bring back students who may have been lost during the pandemic. Polk-Bland said the college has launched a call-back campaign for those students.

“We’re doing outreach and something we call ‘Reconnect,’ to see if our students that we’ve lost during the pandemic want to join us here at Columbus State,” Polk-Bland said.

Ohio sees drop in number of high school graduates

Across the country, the number of high school graduates is declining, leading to continued declines in enrollment in all areas of higher education.

“When you look at institutions in Ohio, most of that decline over the last decade, decade-plus, has been more closely tied to the decline in the traditional-age student population,” Jones said.

In Ohio, the number of high school graduates for the current school year is expected to be down 6% from five years ago, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

With fewer high school graduates in Ohio, Sutton said competition among institutions to attract traditional-aged students is intense. Stark State has an educational partnership with some of the area schools.

Columbus State is trying to attract high school students through its Columbus Promise program. The program guarantees graduates of Columbus City schools free tuition and $500 per semester for six semesters. Graduates must complete a FASFA and Columbus State application to be considered.

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