Thursday, August 05, 2010


Well, That’s Different...

This Fall’s enrollment patterns aren’t looking anything like historical norms. I’m curious to see if that’s a local quirk, or if folks elsewhere are seeing the same thing.

Traditionally, cc enrollments go up during recessions. (That’s because when the job market collapses, so to does the opportunity cost of college.) That happened with a vengeance last year, when we broke records with a double-digit percentage increase in a single year. The severity of the increase was unusual, but the direction was what we expected. Of course, recessions also bring cuts in state funding, making for a nasty financial pincer movement, but that, too, was predictable, even if the severity of it wasn’t.

This Fall, with just a few weeks to go before the start of classes, we’re seeing a weird bifurcation. Applications for enrollment, and applications for financial aid, are both up significantly even when compared to last year. But students who have actually registered are significantly down. Put differently, the number of students who started trying to attend and then vanished is dramatically higher than it has been in past years.

The folks in Admissions have done follow-up calls to the folks who’ve applied and taken their placement tests but not registered, to see what happened. I was hoping to hear that the most common reason was something like “you were my safety school, but my first choice school came through with a great offer.” Instead, the most common answer was “my unemployment ran out.”

I didn’t expect that.

This is where the “education as private good” idea has real social costs. If you have a significant population that just can’t find work because the economy is in the tank, and that population would like to go to college but doesn’t have the income for living expenses -- financial aid is great for tuition and such, but doesn’t do much for living expenses -- then what would you have that population do?

I agree that college isn’t for everybody. Some people prefer to jump straight into the work world; some would likely benefit from something like an apprenticeship or short-term training. But for the twentysomething without a job or any realistic near-term prospect of one, I have to think that community college is one of the better options. Ride out the recession by brushing up on skills and credentials; when the recession is over, hit the job market as a stronger candidate. I can certainly imagine worse strategies.

Last year many of those twentysomethings had enough support to come to college for the first time. Our largest increases were among young men of color, who are otherwise at pretty severe risk in this society, and who don’t typically come here in large numbers. I’d hate to see that population sink back underground, both unemployed and uneducated. That movie doesn’t end well.

Obviously, education is only one component of what needs to be a much larger economic change, but it’s one we can actually sort of control. We can choose to make college an economically accessible option, or we can let unemployment benefits run out before the recession does. I just don’t know how we can do both?

Wise and worldly readers who have access to numbers like these, are you seeing something similar in your neck of the woods?

What about student loans? Can the unemployed who want an education not get loans, are they not willing to take them, or do they not know about the program?
Yes, Dean Dad, we are seeing the same thing at our Midwestern RIIb. A lot more people applied, went through the FAFSA hoops, but are not matriculating. We saw it in June during summer registration. People are not showing up and nobody knows why. Some of the speculation is along the lines you have mentioned. Unemployment ran out.

@ John Larson: An unemployed parent will have an effect on a 20-something student going to college in the fall. Remember, that FAFSA is based on last year's tax income. So if a parent was employed for 2008-2009, but lost their job the year after, that would not be reflected in the FAFSA info or accounted for in the Financial Aid package.

As a parent you'd be asked to pay your share of tuition and expenses based on a job you no longer have. So tell your son or daughter to wait a year to see what happens next.

What surprises me is that this has an impact on the community colleges. I thought that the enrollment would still grow because a parent could say to their student, go to the cc and take some classes while living at home and working.
I've actually done a fair amount of research on the relationship between enrollments and economic conditions, and what you're seeing is no surprise. The *initial* impact of rising unemployment is for enrollments to increase. But *persistently high* unemployment begins, fairly quickly, to drag enrollments down.

The reason is fairly simple, and you've basically hit it. Initially, rising unemployment reduces the opportunity cost of attending college--you have to give up less (in terms of paid work, or time that's valuable for other purposes) if you're temproarily unemployed.

But as unemployment persists--and long-term unemployment is at levels we have never before seen in the data (which only exists back to 1948; we do not have it for the Great Depression)--the lower family incomes lead to lower enrollments.

So, yeah, this is the pattern. It's usual, it predictable, and I have no idea what we can feasibly do about it.
Anonymous @10:25: I teach at a CC and the average age of students at my CC is around 26 or 27. Many of our students are from other countries. Many of our students are single parents of multiple children and have their own places of residence (not with their own mom and/or dad).

In none of these cases does the parents' financial state factor into the equation as to whether a student can continue or enroll in school. I don't think my CC is an exception as to the "typical" CC student. Very few of my students still live at home with their parents.
What I heard is sort of second hand and a bit out of date, but apparently our problem was with continuing students (in good standing), not new students.

DD, how about a FAFSA tutorial? Isn't it true that you can file something if your income changes? I always pass those questions off to an expert staff member, but I seem to recall something like that coming up when I was advising a student who had to stop working full time in order to enter our nursing program.
if you're going to college, then your primary focus is probably not on finding a new job.

i thought unemployment benefits were basically to keep you alive until you could find another job. i didn't think that taking a little time off was part of the deal.

in fact, in order to keep getting unemployment, you have to show that you are actively searching for a new job. we all know this is a bs requirement to make, but it's still supposed to work that way.

if i had just lost my job, spending time and money on community college would be my last priority. i would be doing everything i could to make sure i had some source of revenue.
But as it stands now, there are far more people looking for jobs than there are open positions (not even considering whether those open positions are reasonable). Just because someone wants to work and is looking for a job doesn't mean they will get one in any real timeframe. They might as well work on their credentials.
Mm, crisis capitalism.

Anyways, the answer is that they should starve and die. That's the conservative answer to everything.
@okie.floyd: that would make sense, but this isn't an ordinary recession. The idea of unemployment benefits is that they're limited because the recession itself is limited. Now that Obama has blessed 10% unemployment as the New Normal, there's no reason to expect people to be able to find work.
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