Students are paying more to community colleges while enrollment drops
While enrollment is dropping at suburban community colleges, the average amount spent by students on tuition and fees is on the rise.
That trend follows years of enrollment growth and steady tuition rates.
At the end of 2017, seven suburban community colleges reported a combined 60,177 full-time-equivalent students -- 6,191 fewer than they averaged during the past decade, a 9.3 percent drop.
Meanwhile, even after adjusting for inflation, the average annual cost for tuition and fees paid by students in 2017 was 14.3 percent higher than the 10-year average.
Most college officials said students are shouldering more costs because of declining state funding and a lack of property tax growth.
The schools still remain a relative bargain for higher education, with tuition and fees costing an annual average of $3,618 in 2017.
The Daily Herald analyzed 10 years' worth of data compiled by the Illinois Community College Board from the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Elgin Community College, Harper College in Palatine, College of Lake County in Grayslake, McHenry County College in Crystal Lake, Oakton Community College in Des Plaines and Waubonsee Community College in Sugar Grove.
The state board counts every 30 credit hours taken per year as one full-time-equivalent student.
Matt Berry, an ICCB spokesman, said community colleges initially were conceived as being funded equally with state revenue, local property taxes and tuition. He said the state's current funding level is about 16 percent.
"Tuition is going up, driven in large part from the state support going down," he said. "Additionally, in some districts local tax revenue has gone down or become flat, which has certainly put a lot of pressure on colleges."
Harper College in Palatine had the highest average costs for tuition and fees per full-time-equivalent student of the seven suburban colleges, at $4,231 in 2017. Harper officials attribute that to a larger than average out-of-district student population attracted to the college by academic and career-training offerings not available elsewhere. Out-of-district students pay higher tuition.
Harper also increased tuition by $5.50 per credit hour in 2017, a 4.4 percent increase for in-district students, and about 1.5 percent more for students living outside the district. Harper's full-time-equivalent enrollment dropped by more than 1,000 in 2017 compared to the 10-year average.
"We believe Harper remains the best deal around," said Harper spokeswoman Kim Pohl. "Our board of trustees' policy limits annual tuition increases using a higher education inflation index ... as a guideline, creating manageable and predictable increases for students. These increases are consistently supported by our student government association."
A stronger economy and a decline in the college-age population are also reasons enrollment at community colleges has declined, experts said. The height of the Great Recession coincided with the colleges' peak enrollment during the past decade.
Oakton Community College in Des Plaines saw a 14.1 percent decline from its 10-year full-time-equivalent student enrollment in 2017, the largest of the seven colleges.
"When the economy is strong and unemployment is low, as we've seen happen in the past five years from 9 percent to 4.7 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, community college enrollment declines," said Oakton spokesman Paul Palian. "A team has been activated to respond to community demographic and other changes in our district.
"Traditionally a transfer institution, Oakton is looking at reformulating its offerings in order to grow the number of career and technical education programs that will be of interest to both traditional-age and midcareer students."
Officials at McHenry County College in Crystal Lake said they focus on student retention to reverse enrollment declines, and one of the ways is by keeping costs low. Among the seven suburban community colleges in the analysis, MCC's average student cost had the smallest growth in 2017, at 5 percent compared to the 10-year average.
In its focus on enrollment, the college relies on strong relationships with schools and businesses in the community as well as "ensuring we understand what students need and when they need it," said Chris Gray, MCC's vice president for academic affairs. "For example, offering the best classes at the best times."
Statewide cooperative initiatives among community colleges are gaining greater traction as well, state officials reported. A new program aimed at making career-training courses more accessible by eliminating out-of-district charges was recently approved by all of the state's community college boards.
"Colleges have really taken a hard look at how they're recruiting students and providing services," Berry said. "We've emphasized the need to eliminate barriers to enrollment."
In 2010, the state's community college full-time-equivalent student enrollment peaked at 273,344. Last year, that number was 207,498, according to ICCB enrollment reports. That's nearly a 25 percent decline.
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