After nearly a decade, enrollment up in N.C.

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For the first time in nine years, enrollment among community colleges in North Carolina increased this fall by 4.4 percent, according to the North Carolina Community College System.

Fifty-three of 58 colleges reported increases, the system office said. Enrollment in short-term workforce education increased 9.4 percent, while the number of students in traditional academic programs rose by 3.8 percent.

The state community college system serves about 700,000 students a year, many of them part-time. Enrollment is calculated as a full-time equivalent measure.

Workforce training, outreach and marketing

Several factors have helped to increase community college enrollment in North Carolina, including local innovations and leadership at the colleges, a renewed emphasis on workforce training and a privately funded marketing campaign, according to Peter Hans, president of the North Carolina Community College System (NCCCS).

“Our short-term workforce programs are leading students to good jobs in manufacturing, information technology, health care, transportation and other fields,” he said in a press release.

More financial assistance from the state also has helped. Last year, the legislature and governor approved additional state funding to increase workforce training for high-demand fields.

In addition, community colleges have made improvements in the way they meet students’ needs, with more streamlined processes and more intensive advising and support services, according to the state system. For example, career coaches placed at high schools counsel students about their community college options. And new programs have attracted students.

Last year, NCCCS launched its first statewide marketing campaign, promoting community colleges to parents and students. Its message was simple: choose a higher education focused on getting hired. “Your Hire Education” ads appeared across the state on billboards, radio, TV, print and digital platforms.

Some promising signs

Many community colleges across the country continue to struggle with enrollment. Community college enrollment historically drops as the economy improves because many students opt to work instead. Conversely, enrollment increases when the economy cools.

But there is some promising news. Although fall enrollment at community colleges continues to drop — at a slower rate — the number of first-time postsecondary students who attend public two-year colleges is up, according to a recent report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. In fact, public two-year colleges were the only sector to see an increase among this group.

There also are pockets of community colleges across the country that have started to see an uptick. Although many of those colleges are typically in areas of high economic growth, more enrollment increases are the result of colleges doubling down on outreach efforts.

Maine, for example, this fall reported a 6.3 percent enrollment increase following decreases since 2012. State officials said it is a result of myriad efforts that include:

  • focusing on retaining students
  • better outreach to high school students and their families
  • expanding short-term training programs to address the needs of local industries and to help workers skill up for better-paying jobs

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.