Thursday, October 22, 2009


Where Enrollment is Down

The headlines about the enrollment booms at community colleges are accurate, as far as they go. But I realized yesterday that they leave out part of the story.

Locally, our credit-bearing programs are bursting at the seams. The library is literally standing-room-only at peak hours; veteran staff tell me they've never seen that before. English as a Second Language is through the roof.

But our non-credit courses are dramatically down. The profit-making classes -- pottery, French for travel, that sort of thing -- are cratering. Contract training for local employers is also down. The only increases are in the money-losing pro bono area of adult basic education. (ABE is sort of a pre-remedial track. Think 'basic literacy,' as opposed to 'developmental writing.')

Over the years, we've used the profit-making courses to pay for the pro bono stuff. But with the Great Recession making itself felt ever more strongly, the folks who used to take classes like 'wine appreciation' are finding them relatively easy to skip. And companies that are struggling to stay afloat find it easier to eliminate training than to do other cuts.

Annoyingly enough, we don't even get the minor compensating benefit of easier parking for everyone else, since the non-credit courses typically run during off-peak hours and/or offsite.

A decline in revenues from personal enrichment classes isn't a huge crisis, since they were never a huge part of the budget. But every little bit helps (or hurts), and the difference with the credit programs is striking. The personal enrichment courses have historically been our connection to the 'affluent adult' market, which is small but politically important. Meanwhile, the student body on the for-credit side gets progressively younger and more non-white. I'd like to think that won't matter politically, but history isn't encouraging on that front.

So yes, our enrollments are up, but it's a bit more complicated than that.

Meanwhile, the student body on the for-credit side gets progressively younger and more non-white

I'd say whether or not this is bad depends on where you live. By 2020, 50% of the folks in California will speak Spanish as their first language. The counties in California that are largely white are also largely Republican and hostile to things like publicly funded education which they see as broken beyond repair and not worth the cost. So, if you see your population shifting non-white you may end up with an electorate that is more likely to fund education, and in the long run this could help you. If the Obama campaign taught me anything it was this - register enough "minorities", middle class, and working class people to vote and you can win an election. I visited some truly sketchy places registering folks to vote and campaigning for Obama but the state I worked in (a swing state) turned blue.

I would worry about this enrollment dip if it becomes a permanent thing - right now, working affluent folks are trying to keep their positions and don't have time for extras. I have learned that the workforce investment boards have lots of ARRA money right now so if you're interested in funding training programs, you should be able to do so through them. WIBs love basic skills classes and seem to be really interested in funding those as ancillaries to practical training – at least in my area.
I completely trust every uncited demographic assessment on the internet that predicts ten years out.
We don't offer non-credit classes here and, while I heard rumours that they were a proposal a few years back, your comments do make me wary of their extreme vulnerability to economic distress.

Locally we have a strike continuing since mid-summer against one of the major employers and I know that's hitting all sorts of discretionary purchases locally. We seem to have dodged that particular bullet!
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