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?