Good signs despite enrollment decreases

Source: Illinois Community College Board, “Fall 2018 Opening Enrollment Survey Results,” October 2018.

Like many other states, Illinois is experiencing drops in enrollment at most of its community colleges. But a new state report notes some key bright spots for public two-year colleges, such as increases in graduations, increases in enrollments in online programs, and a steady rise in the number of recent high school graduates attending the colleges.

Total fall enrollment this year in the Illinois Community College System — the third largest system in the country — is down 3.8 percent compared to last year, according to the new report from the Illinois Community College Board (ICCB).

A one-year comparison among the 48 community colleges shows that 35 colleges reported headcount decreases of 1 percent or more. Nine colleges had headcount enrollment increases of 1 percent or more, while the remaining four colleges saw little or no change.

Historically, community college enrollment drops when the economy is strong, as more adult learners who might upgrade their skills or train for new careers opt to enter the workforce.

Pointing up

Despite the challenging numbers, there are some positive signs noted in the report. For example, the percentage of high school graduates attending a community college increased to 31.3 percent for 2016 graduates compared to 28.8 percent for 2013 graduates, according to the report.

“While college-going outmigration is greatly impacting the four-year public sector, community colleges continue to be a viable option for high school graduates,” said ICCB Executive Director Karen Hunter Anderson.

Another good sign is that college graduations are up. While fall enrollments have declined in recent years, the number of community college graduates has increased considerably. A total of 63,446 completions occurred in 2018 compared to 38,420 in 2001 and 49,627 in 2006, according to the report.

“Even with decreases in enrollment, the community college system is graduating students at record levels,” Hunter Anderson said.

The online option

Community colleges in Illinois — as in many other states — are further challenged by unpredictable state funding and increased pressures from for-profit institutions, according to ICCB.

In response, colleges are focusing on the costs of delivering courses and programs to make more effective decisions about course offerings based on student needs, the report said. One important area of growth to meet student needs is online education. Fall 2018 online enrollments increased 4 percent, with 2,520 more students than fall 2017.

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