How Community Colleges Can Avoid the “Cliff”

Enrollment pressures are coming. How institutions respond will define their future.

Community colleges were not doing too well in terms of enrollment before the pandemic; since then, things have gotten only worse, a few bright lights here and there notwithstanding. The future, if the sector continues on its current trajectory, is unlikely to provide much relief, even if the now-questionable effects of a not-so-certain recession provide a temporary enrollment bump. Most colleges are headed for a demographic cliff in less than three years, with the number of graduating high-school seniors dropping precipitously across America.

Some optimists place their hope in dual-credit programs made in partnership with high schools. Given that high-school seniors who matriculate into community colleges with credits already on their transcripts will need precisely that many fewer credits to get an associate’s degree, such a hope is reminiscent of the salesman who cuts off the bottom two inches of a blanket, sews it to the top, and claims to have created a longer rug.

Another premise of optimists—that stackable credentials will attract students who want to get into the workforce equipped with multiple layers of certifiable expertise—is music to the ears of bureaucrats in state capitals and academic deans but lacks much market evidence of delivering on its vaunted promise.

While the number of community colleges is largely unchanged, the demand for their services has tanked.The stark fact remains that while the number of community colleges has remained largely unchanged in the last two decades, the demand for their services has tanked in most parts of the country. The reasons for this include an aversion in many young men toward college, non-collegiate actors stepping into the job-training workspace, and large public-sector employers removing the college degree as a basic requirement. One cannot blame taxpayers in community-college districts for asking sharp questions about the return-on-investment of their toil, treasure, and taxes.

Constructing yet another new building or deploying expensive under-utilized software is quite the opposite of the reassurance such taxpayers need. Rather, what would be comforting and commonsensical is to take some serious steps that show taxpayers that college administrators are cognizant of the stark challenges they face and ready to address them without adding to the tax burden. Four such possible steps are discussed below.

Consolidate and De-duplicate

The almost one thousand public community colleges in the United States, often supported by levies from the citizens of a particular county or city, came about at the turn of the previous century to provide useful post-secondary education or training locally. The idea was to avoid making students travel long distances to larger universities. In the 21st century, with physical transportation and rich electronic communication modalities fundamentally changing our idea of “distance,” it is appropriate to question whether a state like Wisconsin, for example, needs 27 entirely separate community colleges.

Without doing away with the very important tradition of locally elected/appointed boards to oversee individual institutions, there is a case to be made for creating statewide community-college systems—the states of Washington and North Carolina are great examples—that allow for the consolidation of expensive functions like procurement. Such consolidation not only addresses the cost that comes with having dozens of information systems that do not “talk” to each other but also equips colleges with bargaining power vis-a-vis huge companies like Microsoft and Amazon (for purchasing) or their own sprawling state-university systems (for transfer articulations). Furthermore, a systemwide approach also provides an opportunity to reduce redundancies in the separate program portfolios of colleges that are barely half an hour apart on the interstate. Taken all together, such consolidation can save resources for taxpayers and provide confidence that colleges continue to be viable public investments.

Two out of every five new students at community colleges don’t return for their second year.Focus on Retention with the Same Zeal as Recruitment

Two out of every five new students at community colleges don’t return for their second year. If these institutions were commercial enterprises, that kind of attrition would send the entire sector into Chapter 13 proceedings. While there are plenty of factors that affect retention at community colleges, including some that are out of the control of institutions, a reallocation of attention and resources is overdue. Administrators’ intense attention to recruitment often comes at the expense of retention, whereas a balance may pay rich rewards and help stabilize enrollment. Catchphrases like “retention is everyone’s business,” as well as expensive software that promises the moon on retention, sound and look good in mahogany-trimmed vice-presidential office suites. But they do little to address the cultural challenge of making retention success an intentional part of accountability across the institution’s academic and advising portfolios. Such an approach makes common sense and is supported by research: If institutions hold recruiters and admissions counselors responsible for helping students come through the front door, instructors and advisors should play the same primary role in helping to keep those students from disappearing before completing their programs.

Recruit Good Teachers, Not Just PhDs

But surely student engagement cannot be the sole purpose of being an instructor at a community college? Well, a community college is fundamentally a teaching and learning institution rather than a research ecosystem, for which we have R1 and R2 universities. The best faculty members at community colleges choose the sector because they want to teach, whereas those for whom research is the primary goal prefer to work at large universities, where suffering through a couple of undergraduate classes a semester is the price a tenure-seeking, newly-minted PhD pays to access top-notch research opportunities. I have a doctorate myself and have taught at the post-secondary level for 20 years. But there is little evidence that someone with a doctorate makes a better teacher for freshman- and sophomore-level classes than someone with a master’s degree. Aggregate data seem to support the anecdotal evidence that academic tradition (or a desire for prestige) leads community colleges to pay a significant doctoral premium when hiring new teachers, while often ignoring top-notch adjuncts with master’s degrees who would make incredible full-time teachers and bring with them great institutional knowledge and student-engagement skills. Focusing on teaching skills rather than the prestige of a doctorate could free up resources for more advisors while keeping students better engaged in the classroom.

Commercial behemoths like Amazon, Google, and Udemy have aggressively moved into the credentialing space.Update Assessment with Market Credentials

Commercial behemoths like Amazon, Google, and Udemy have aggressively moved into the credentialing space by catering to learners who want something tangible and immediate to show to prospective employers while also keeping their options open for an eventual degree. Colleges and universities already have the structure to respond to this phenomenon, in that many of the courses that build up to a diploma have built-in assessments of key learning outcomes. Currently, most such assessment instruments are products of curriculum committees and inter-departmental taskforces and are thoroughly imbued with the laboriously worked-out compromises that go into any major decision in academia. Given the strong connections community colleges maintain with industry partners, why not update some course curricula and replace these in-house academic instruments with skills tests designed by professional organizations? There is an immense breadth and depth of such professional credentials at every level of learning, for every conceivable discipline. Sure, this would be counter-cultural for academia, but imagine a student being able to tell an employer that she has completed just one course in business management but, thanks to an assessment instrument, already has Business Concepts Entrepreneurship and Small Business certification? Blending assessment and professional recognition for every possible course will not only give learners a new tool in the jobs marketplace but also signal to potential learners that community colleges are real competitors in preparing them for earning power at every stage of their journey.

Political science tells us that a declining number of incoming students supporting the same number of classroom seats with the same level of local taxation is not politically feasible in much of Middle America. The science of economics suggests that community colleges should change course.

Dr. Esam Sohail Mohammad is the associate vice president of institutional research and effectiveness at Butler Community College in El Dorado, Kansas. He is a past chairman of the Kansas Council of Institutional Researchers of Two-Year Organizations (CIRTO). The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not reflect those of any organization with which he is affiliated.