Growth spurt reverses at local community colleges

  • Students are getting back into the swing of things at Harper College in Palatine, which saw enrollment drop this fall after three consecutive years of growth.

      Students are getting back into the swing of things at Harper College in Palatine, which saw enrollment drop this fall after three consecutive years of growth. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Students at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn cross the street to the parking lot. The school has seen enrollment drop for two consecutive years.

      Students at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn cross the street to the parking lot. The school has seen enrollment drop for two consecutive years. Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

Updated 9/12/2011 11:03 AM

History shows that community college enrollment skyrockets when the economy tanks.

That's never been more true than over the past few years, as students across Illinois flooded their local campuses in record numbers.


This fall semester, however, school officials are reporting flat and even declining enrollment compared to last year, even though the already anemic economic recovery appears to be fading.

"We're not sure what's going on exactly," College of Lake County spokeswoman Evelyn Schiele said. "There are some theories on the table."

One of those theories shared by officials at several suburban community colleges is that students can't afford not to work, so people don't have as much surplus time for classes. Even formerly unemployed adult learners who initially sought out school for a career change or additional training may not have the money to pay tuition, instead opting to take jobs for which they're overqualified, officials said.

"Community colleges continue to be the best value in town, but if it's the difference between paying an electricity bill and taking classes, people have to prioritize," said Jim Bente, College of DuPage vice president of planning and institutional effectiveness.

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Despite their value, especially compared to four-year institutions, officials acknowledge rising tuition costs. Students at all seven area schools are paying at least $15 more per credit hour this fall compared to 2006, and much more than that at some places.

"Tuition has gone up a bit, so we're asking have we hit a price point?" Schiele said.

She said enrollment at CLC's Vernon Hills campus is up 10 percent, which could support the idea that the more affluent southern portion of the county may be less affected by the economy and better able to afford tuition.

The one local exception to the changed enrollment trend was Waubonsee Community College in Sugar Grove, which saw a 3.1 percent increase to 9,177 credit-seeking students compared to last fall, according to official 10th-day enrollment figures reported to the Illinois Community College Board.

The increase may be a reflection of the region's growth. Waubonsee serves portions of Kane, Kendall, DeKalb, LaSalle and Will counties, all of which showed double-digit percent increases in population between 2000 and 2010, according to the U.S. Census.


The influx of people prompted the college last year to open a new campus in Plano and relocate its downtown Aurora location to a bigger and more modern space.

"We're in a unique situation," spokesman Jeff Noblitt said of bucking the trend. "Since the recession began, we've seen students continue to start college closer to home to get their general education requirements out of the way."

The six other local community colleges showed either flat or declining enrollment, with McHenry County College experiencing the largest decrease, with 3.6 percent fewer credit-seeking students and 6 percent fewer credit hours.

Spokeswoman Christina Haggerty said much of the college's enrollment growth over the past two years -- 20 percent in 2009 and 5 percent in 2010 -- was driven and sustained by the influx of traditional-age students into the MCC Promise Program.

The initiative aimed to increase enrollment by offering free tuition to any student who graduated within the district who volunteered for community service projects and maintained good grades. However, the program was quickly overwhelmed by applications and officials stopped admitting students to it.

Despite the drop this fall, Haggerty pointed out that compared to fall 2008, just before MCC Promise began, head count is up 32 percent and credit hours up 22 percent.

Elgin Community College experienced the next largest decrease with 3.3 percent fewer credit-seeking students.

Mary Perkins, ECC's associate dean of enrollment management, said much of the drop-off occurred in the GED (General Educational Development) and ESL (English as a Second Language) programs, which are free grant-funded programs that have lost funding. Those classes also have been moved from a satellite facility in downtown Elgin to the main campus near Randall Road.

"We're monitoring the shift to see if it's had an effect," Perkins said. "It's difficult to get a good grasp on how many people those particular populations have."

She noted that enrollment is only down 0.7 percent among students signed up for career programs and those who intend to transfer to a four-year institution.

College of DuPage officials have seen a decrease in students taking general education requirements such as English, speech and history courses, while health care, culinary and hospitality, and Homeland Security programs are filled to capacity.

"The data aligns with individuals looking for occupational skills they can actually use to go get gainful employment in a short period of time," COD's Bente said. "Gen eds are important for a degree but they're not going to get you a job right away."

Harper College in Palatine experienced its first drop in enrollment after three consecutive years of growth, but officials attribute the 0.8 percent decrease to 15,742 credit-seeking students to a shift in strategy.

Instead of getting bodies in the door, the college is working to create a culture of completion by focusing on student retention. The effort is part of President Barack Obama's call to boost by 5 million the number of graduations from the nation's community colleges by 2020.

"We're focusing on student success and educating them on the benefits of obtaining that credential," Dean of Enrollment Services Maria Moten, noting that there are fewer adult students on campus.

The suburban community college enrollment trend appears to reflect what's been going on statewide.

Though the Illinois Community College Board doesn't have enrollment figures for the fall semester yet, the spring 2011 semester showed both head count and full-time equivalent figures -- a measure of credit hours -- were down from record levels the prior year.

The spring 2011 statewide head count was 381,582, down 2 percent from 389,432 in spring 2010, the state community college board reported.