Education scholar, Gary Rhoads, was the lead author on a report released by Center for the Future of Higher Education, an organization that Dr. Rhoads leads. The main thrust is the troubling decline in community college funding and it’s impact on student access. Specifically, that the reducing the budget has put caps on programs and created a conflict with the community college “open admissions” policies. However, in attempting to argue this, the report makes an odd claim: “Enrollment in community colleges across the country is plateauing and declining despite rising student demand.”
I agree with the thesis, but not the logic. Dr. Rhoads attempts to tie the recent enrollment declines to limited budgets. “Enrollment in community colleges across the country is plateauing and declining,” he argues, “despite rising student demand.” Dr. Rhoads seems insistent on this latter part, but here is where I get lost. Although demand is much higher than 5 years ago, many states have had declining enrollments since two years ago.
Moreover, the sharp decline in enrollment was projected ahead of time based on demand-based factors*. I predicted the sharp decline in Iowa’s community college enrollment because of decrease in demand.* The U.S. Department of Education estimated enrollment would move from a 7% growth between 2008 and 2009 to a 0.8% growth between 2009 and 2010 (turned out to be a 1.7% growth) using a methodology primarily based on demand. Oddly, Dr. Rhoads report also cites a Community College Review article that notes several states expected their enrollments to decline, even in states where he claims students are being turned away because of budget cuts.
The reason for the decline? I think that many students who jumped into community colleges simply graduated, transferred, or entered back into the labor market. Dr. Rhoads, during a bit of a Twitter conversation, noted that the graduation rates have not increased at community colleges, and he’s absolutely right. But the graduation rate formula at community colleges are woefully inadequately, capturing first-time, full-time students. In this instance, it’s more meaningful to look at total number of awards. In Iowa, we saw the largest jump in the number of awards since we started tracking that statistic. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to grab the most recent national statistic.
It is also likely that there was a reduction in student demand as unemployment began to recover. Although the unemployment rate has been slowly declining, there has been a reducing in the number of unemployed individuals. In August 2009 (the fall 2009 semester), there were 14,823,000 unemployed “adults” (16+). At the beginning of the fall 2011 semester, there were 14,008,000 unemployment adults. Currently, as of February 2012 (let’s call that the spring 2012 semester), 13,430,000 unemployed adults.
Like I said, I ultimately agree with Dr. Rhoads. The budget cuts, “operating more with less”, has taken a toll, but not in the way he suggests. Instead, I suspect community college enrollment in specific majors/programs was artificially capped during the enrollment surge. Enrollment in community colleges grew 7% in 2009, which was likely caused by the sudden economic deterioration. During this point, we saw colleges struggle to add capacity to technical programs which could not expand fast enough to keep pace. Within Iowa, there were numerous instances of programs with long waiting lists.** At this point, Dr. Rhoads is right; many students were turned away and, likely, those who would benefit the most from college.
Dr. Rhoads is a respected scholar and the report seemed to catch the attention of other good education researchers. The line of argumentation doesn’t make sense though. Student demand is clearly higher now than 5 years ago, but there is no way enrollments are going to be as high as 2009. Yet, the report compares current enrollment with the enrollment peak as evidence that students are being turned away. California is a clear case where this is happening, but the evidence isn’t clear in the other states***
These seem like minor quibbles. It would be easy agree to disagree with the logic for an argument I ultimately agree with. But I think it is very important for academia to play a mediating role between government, administrators, and the public. Lawmakers who are bent on reducing public expenditures will claim that higher education is well-funded or even over-funded–even when they are clearly not adequately funded, such as the case now. Higher education administrators will complain they are under-funded or have too many burdens even in periods where funding is adequate and the regulation is meaningful.
And some of it is my past experience. I hated, hated, when an advocacy paper from a think-tank was released that played fast-and-loose. As a result, there was a lot of running around trying to adjust the newly-formed misconceptions. Normally, these reports argued against my belief or policies. In this circumstance, there is a peaceful rejoinder on an unfortunate circumstance–we ultimately agree that students are being turned away, just differ on when it happened. Even when community colleges had rapidly increasing enrollment, the limit on programs seemed to conflict with their open admission policies. Although students were admitted and were suitable for some programs, there was simply no room.*Predicting enrollment decline based on demand factors doesn’t negate the possibility that enrollment declined because of caps. **Even so, we need to debate whether the program caps are aligned to the labor market. Perhaps the only thing worse than being excluded from a program is being trained in an occupation where no jobs exist. ***There certainly could be more, but I haven’t noticed any strong evidence in other states. At least, there isn’t evidence that this is happening in most states.