Enough of the Economic 'Blame Game': Colleges Must Take Responsibility for Enrollment

Many individuals were impacted at the recession's onset. Jobs were lost. Businesses closed. And initially, many community colleges reported huge enrollment boosts, as unemployed and under-employed individuals flocked back to school in search of new careers or to improve their skills.

As the recession continued, however, it appeared those same students who entered college seeking to improve or revitalize their skill sets had to put off their educational goals in order to stay afloat financially. In addition, many first-time students postponed college and opted to enter into the workforce. A recent article in Community College Daily noted that declines in college enrollment over the past two years seem to support the theory that when the economy improves, non-traditional students (age 24 and older) tend to favor jobs over going to college.

What, then, does all this mean for the future of higher education and community colleges in particular?

The current economy presents unique competitive challenges as we jockey for a shrinking pool of students. It has become more essential than ever to listen to the market and develop innovative programs that respond to the needs of the workplace. As an example, College of DuPage recently partnered with five universities to offer 12 baccalaureate degrees entirely on our campus at a significantly reduced tuition rate. Students participating in any of these 3+1 programs can earn a baccalaureate degree from one of our partner universities for a total cost of less than $34,000.

Higher education should not participate in the economic "blame game" when it comes to rising or falling enrollments. The economy is just one of many factors that impact a student's decision to attend a college or university. The ability to keep enrollment on the upswing rests entirely upon the shoulders of each individual institution. College of DuPage is the only community college district in the State of Illinois to experience an increase in Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) enrollment this spring. Yet we are not resting on our laurels. Instead, we continue to proactively uncover new opportunities for our students and have the courage to recognize and remove out-of-date programs, replacing them with offerings that result in a positive future and a fiscally rewarding career.

More than ever, there must be a positive ROI at the end of the educational journey that results in both a diploma and a paycheck in each student's hand. Community Colleges have the flexibility and capability of providing opportunities for students that are relevant and real in today's marketplace. We are continually changing and reacting to a dynamic environment, creating programs that provide training and skills that are needed now and result in jobs today.

It is my belief that community colleges are the answer to the labor crisis in this country.
Colleges that don't make tough decisions -- and keep tired, irrelevant programs in their curriculum -- are in fact contributing to this country's economic crisis as their students enthusiastically walk across the stage in their cap and gown only to eventually become a jobless statistic.

In closing, College of DuPage recently conducted extensive research as part of our new branding campaign. One of the most significant findings came through when we asked prospects what they considered "least appealing" about COD. The answer was simply that we are a two-year school. This doesn't mean we plan to convert to a four-year institution - it just means that our product line must provide additional opportunities for our students so they leave here with a diploma and training that is in sync with market expectations. This is a topic that is gaining momentum across the country - with nearly half of all states implementing legislation that enables their community colleges to provide bachelor's degrees.

While I don't have a crystal ball, I'm assuming the current momentum toward two-year schools offering baccalaureate degrees will only become stronger over the next few years. In less than a decade, 22 states have agreed to allow their community colleges to offer bachelor's degrees in applied technical fields where a four-year degree is needed. Statistics show that keeping students on the same campus for four years has a positive effect on completions. In turn, this means the deployment of more skilled workers to fill employment gaps in high-growth technical areas such as nursing, manufacturing, industrial management, computer information systems and related fields.

Just last week, the College of DuPage Board of Trustees received a resolution for discussion that supports the awarding of Bachelor of Applied Technology and/or Bachelor of Applied Science degrees at College of DuPage. The COD Board will vote on May 22 whether to support this resolution and begin the process of garnering additional statewide backing for this important initiative.

It is this kind of self-examination and innovation that will carry the day for higher education, regardless of external factors such as the economy.