Shrinking enrollments lead to rethinking of criminal justice programs


Drops in enrollment at several criminal justice and law enforcement preparation programs have led some community colleges to rethink their approaches in an attempt to better align with the needs of local police and corrections agencies, as well as the desires and ambitions of students.

Due to a combination of declining enrollment and new police training academies in its immediate area, Community Colleges of Spokane (CCS) in Washington decided in June to end its criminal justice program entirely. Law enforcement agencies have been providing training academies to new recruits, while the shortage of law enforcement officers meant that the criminal justice degree no longer had the same market value.

Editor’s note: This article is the first of two that examines criminal justice programs at community colleges, some of which have seen enrollment drops in those programs.

“Our program was about the pathway into law enforcement,” says CCS Chancellor Kevin Brockbank. “The value-added wasn’t there [anymore]. … There were still plenty of people passionately engaged in the idea of working in law enforcement. But our program no longer served its original intent.”

Brockbank can’t say exactly why interest fell off and figures it could have been a mix of variables, with the scrutiny of law enforcement since the racial reckoning of 2020 among the factors. Ultimately, he says, what drove the decision was conversations with local law enforcement agencies about what they seek in recruits, and what role community colleges could play going forward.

“What came out of that was, ‘We want a 26-year-old degree-holder with communications skills and maturity — and not necessarily a criminal justice background,’” Brockbank says. “We can help them recruit that type of student out of our existing population. As opposed to, ‘You have to commit to two years in this criminal justice program.’”

Brockbank feels good about the process Spokane went through, which he says aligns with the college’s stated intent to ease students’ path to their final goal, while reducing the cost of attendance and time to completion.

“It’s a positive for us to be able to say that we went back, looked at the program and what was the original intent, and what’s the intent now, and does that still fit?” he says. “With the changes in hiring requirements, if our program was no longer serving what was intended, the best thing is not to send students down this path.”

Instead, Spokane has been working with local employers, ranging from the Spokane Police Department to local correctional facilities, to provide students with access to job fairs and other recruiting opportunities.

“Ultimately, we’re trying to do the right thing for the student who has an interest in law enforcement — get them on a directed path to that career, which no longer involves that [criminal justice] program,” Brockbank says. “We want to fulfill their dream as quickly as possible.”

Including more social justice

Middlesex Community College in Lowell and Bedford, Massachusetts, had seen an enrollment decline in its criminal justice program but has “stopped the bleeding” since recasting that program two years ago as “criminal and social justice” to attract a more diverse pool of students during the period of racial unrest, according to program chair Heloisa DuCunha.

“One of the things we did was incorporate social justice [concepts] into every single class,” she says. “We’re not so heavily focused on law enforcement. We’re trying to be attractive to students who want to work in the court system, or in rehabilitation, or nonprofits.”

One “huge recruitment tool” has been a one-credit career exploration class offered conference-style that gives an overview of various topics related to criminal and social justice, presented by professionals working in the field, DaCunha says. Those networking interactions continue into the rest of the curriculum, with personnel from the FBI, U.S. Marshal’s Office, state police, probation and parole officers, local sheriff’s departments and more than 15 local police departments coming to campus.

“Students get the opportunity to network,” she says. “I’ve heard success stories where students got jobs.”

Overall, what DaCunha thinks has helped stabilize the program’s numbers has been a review of the statewide police academy curriculum and the decision to marry core classes recommended by the state — such as criminal justice, police operations, criminal law, criminology and corrections — with requirements to take at least three humanities courses, including at least one in communications.

“We work very closely with local police departments,” she says. “I’m always in communication to see how can we grow the program.”

Joining forces

Finger Lakes Community College (FLCC) in Canandaigua, New York, has seen a drop in enrollment in its programs and responded by building a partnership with the Finger Lakes Law Enforcement Academy (FLLEA), a 35-year-old nonprofit training provider for police and peace officers in six counties, which has begun training on the FLCC’s main campus this year.

John Falbo, chief deputy with the Ontario County Sheriff’s Office and board chairman with FLLEA, of which the sheriff’s office is a member agency, figures that the enrollment decrease correlates with struggles law enforcement and corrections agencies have had the past few years with negative press stories and additional scrutiny of those in the profession.

“We’ve had people who we would be looking to get hired, and then after discussions with their families, have come back and said, ‘I’m going to go a different direction in life, and not take this job,’” he says. “I think that’s turning around, recently, this year and especially in the last six months, with the general idea that the whole ‘defund the police’ movement has backfired.”

Yates County Sheriff’s Lt. Ed Nemitz leads a class at the Finger Lakes Law Enforcement Academy at the Finger Lakes Community College main campus in March. (Photo: FLCC)

Previously spread over multiple locations with more limited capacity, FLLEA will use the community college’s athletic facilities and a lecture hall, although firearms training will be held at the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office range. The co-location — currently a one-year trial period with hopes for more — will help to build informal ties with the college’s degree and certificate students, and FLCC and the academy are developing a plan to grant college credit to academy graduates who want to go on toward a degree.

Historically, FLLEA would train recruits, get them certified and send them back to their agencies for field training without them gaining any credit hours, says Matthew McGrath, chief of campus police at Finger Lakes. Going forward, assuming the state Department of Education signs off on a memorandum of understanding that creates room for up to 50 students at once to use the campus facilities (there have been 33 enrolled this summer), they will be able to get a 24-credit-hour certificate, he says.

Joseph Mariconda, professor of criminal justice at FLCC, says other community colleges in upstate New York have similar arrangements, and Finger Lakes has discussed it with FLLEA in the past. The criminal justice program’s enrollment had slowly declined from nearly 200 students in the early 2010s to about 100 now.

“We realized this would be another way to get students into the program and boost our enrollment,” he says. “We’re a rural community college. There’s not a lot of other options for the places we serve.”

The service area’s total contingent of criminal justice workers, in corrections and law enforcement, is down about 50%, Mariconda says.

“We have recruits going around the school, eating lunch, and blending in and mingling with the students,” he says. “It’s a mutual, beneficial thing for both sides of this. It adds to our enrollment; it keeps our program going; and it allows them to use our facilities and get good experience.”

Some students who left FLCC early for a job in the criminal justice system are now returning to complete their credentials or to acquire additional training or education, Mariconda says.

Building bridges

Bergen Community College in Paramus, New Jersey, has seen the percentage of students enrolled in its associate of science in criminal justice fall from 4.1% in 2018, to 3.2% in 2022, while the smaller associate in applied science in law enforcement has remained steady or gained slightly, with 59 students in 2022, about 0.5% of total enrollment.

The school’s location in an area with a plethora of career opportunities along with its articulation agreement with John Jay College of Criminal Justice likely have helped its numbers, says Adam Goodell, senior dean of humanities, who has served as interim dean of business, arts and social sciences for the past three years.

“If you look at the numbers in total, it’s a very minimal decline overall,” he says. “There has been a significant enrollment decline in total in community colleges for the past five years, so there’s a slight program decline within the greater total enrollment decline. … It’s really just about resources and our region, more than anything we are doing as an institution.”

The program’s faculty leadership is well connected to the professional law enforcement network in the tri-state region, Goodell says. And they have focused on professional development in the wake of raised discussions about race and law enforcement by attending conferences that address complex issues, including increased diversity, equity and inclusion, he says.

“We’re trying to make sure people are aware of the generational disconnects,” Goodell says. “We need to encourage a culture of not being stuck in your ways — or in your viewpoint from when you were first on the job.”

About the Author

Ed Finkel
Ed Finkel is an education writer based in Illinois.
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