Editorial: Adapting to changes helps community college retain their value
Experts cite various reasons for a continuing decline in community college enrollment:
• In a booming economy, it's easier for young people to find opportunities elsewhere, whether it be at four-year institutions or in private businesses and industries hungry for workers.
• Enrollment peaked in 2010, driven by a historic recession that had spurred tens of thousands of older adults to turn to community colleges for retraining in marketable skills and professions.
• The college-age population is declining.
Such factors present uncomfortable challenges for the institutions, not least among them the potential need to boost tuitions in order to pay the bills. To be sure, some local colleges have reluctantly resorted to that option during the current downturn. But what's most noteworthy and encouraging overall is how nimbly community colleges are adapting to local conditions, both to maintain reasonable cost controls and to meet changing educational needs.
As immediate examples, McHenry County College and Elgin Community College point to adjustments they've made that helped them buck the enrollment trend this year. Our Madhu Krishnamurthy reported Thursday state figures showing MCC's enrollment has actually grown substantially -- almost 14% -- over the past four years. Although enrollment at ECC still remains below its 2015 level, the school may have stemmed a downward slide by managing year-over-year growth of 3.7% in 2019.
MCC officials cite an emphasis on training in high-demand fields such as computer automation, industrial maintenance, welding and health. The school also added a new science center, built industry partnerships and placed an emphasis on diversity recruiting.
ECC officials note the success the school has had building relationships early with high school students, though they recognize that, with the smaller college-age population, the long-term answer will be in attracting older adults.
Though they did not see the yearly increases this year that MCC and ECC experienced, other suburban community colleges are employing various combinations of these strategies to slow the enrollment slide. And, importantly, all the schools are tapping into the popularity of online learning and producing enrollment increases in e-classes.
Economic and demographic fluctuations will always pose challenges for community college enrollment. But by monitoring economic and social trends, adapting to changes and maintaining close relationships with the local businesses and industries who will employ their graduates, the schools can remain -- and are remaining -- among the best values in higher education and local scholastic treasures.