Start of a rebound? How suburban community colleges' enrollments fared this fall
The start of fall classes at community colleges across the state brought a modest overall increase in student enrollment for the first time in more than a decade.
Elgin Community College saw one of the state's largest increases, with a 10.8% increase in enrollment from last fall. It was among nine community colleges with growth rates in the double digits.
"In my mind, this is really the beginning of a long-term rebound," said Dave Rudden, director of institutional research at ECC.
Nationally, enrollment at community colleges fell 5.6% in 2021 and remained flat in 2022, according to the Illinois Community College Board's fall 2022 enrollment report.
But Illinois' community colleges overall saw a 1.5% increase in student enrollment, according to the report. Gov. J.B. Pritzker said it was part of the state's recovery from the economic impacts of the pandemic.
"This achievement is a direct result of our state's wonderful faculty and educators as well as our determined students -- ready to jump into their learning and preparation for the jobs of the future," he said in a statement.
Data from the Illinois Community College Board report show student enrollment at 28 community colleges increased while 20 community colleges saw a decline. Along with ECC, College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Oakton Community College in Des Plaines and Harper College in Palatine saw their student enrollments increase from the fall of 2021.
College of Lake County in Grayslake and Waubonsee Community College in Sugar Grove were among 20 community colleges that saw slight decreases.
Though in-person learning remains the preferred method for courses, the report notes online students accounted for 47.3% of enrollment statewide. In 2019, online students accounted for just 24.3% of enrollment, according to the report.
Though online learning was mandatory in 2020, many community colleges are finding the remote option provides flexibility for students trying to balance busy schedules and school.
"Some students who never looked at remote instruction before now see some of the convenience of it and want to take advantage of it," College of DuPage President Brian Caputo said.
Much like the rest of the state, suburban community colleges experienced an increase in adult and continuing education -- a sign that people are looking to add to their job skills.
Statewide, adult education saw a 30.4% increase in enrollment from last fall. Dual credit, English language acquisition, vocational and certificate programs also saw enrollment increases.
At ECC, the largest gain -- 42% -- came from transfer students, including students enrolled at another institution before attending ECC. The college saw a 40% increase in reverse students or students who were returning to college after earning a bachelor's degree or higher.
ECC also saw 7% and 2% increases in Asian and Black student enrollment, and a 22% increase in Latino student enrollment.
Many cite the easing of COVID restrictions as a key reason for enrollment increases.
"There's a return of confidence that maybe I can invest in myself again," said Bob Parzy, associate provost of enrollment services at Harper College. "People are starting to reemerge and think that it's not a bad investment."
He said the increased enrollment could be a sign that people are thinking more about their futures and aren't as focused on the immediate challenges brought on by a pandemic.
"In the last two years, people had to assess what was most important," Parzy said.
Even with a slight decrease in enrollment, the College of Lake County has seen an uptick in the number of credit hours students are taking and an increase in specific programs, such as vocational and adult education programs.
Erin Fowles, CLC dean of enrollment services, noted student enrollment increased in fall 2021 and she expects it to continue.
Suburban community college officials said they've worked to attract new students and have expanded popular programs. College of Lake County, for example, recently opened its Advanced Technology Center. Elgin Community College worked to expand its dual credit offerings to high school students and developed a program to help students navigate the application and enrollment process, a move officials said has contributed to the enrollment increase.
Though spring enrollment remains open, college officials are optimistic the trend will continue and say growing attendance at open house events and an increase in applications are hopeful signs.
"We're cautiously optimistic that people are remembering or rediscovering the power of education and what it can do," Parzy said.
Enrollment at suburban community collegesHow suburban community colleges have fared with enrollment in a year's time:
Elgin Community College: up 10.8%
College of DuPage: up 5.2%
Harper College: up 3.5%
Oakton Community College: up 2.9%
McHenry County College: up 1.2%
Waubonsee Community College: down 0.4%
College of Lake County: down 3.8%
* Source: Illinois Community College Enrollment report, fall 2022.