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Community colleges faced with dwindling enrollment

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Posted at 12:11 PM, Dec 02, 2022

CLEVELAND — Community colleges across the country are continuing to see a drop in enrollment.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, two-year institutions saw a decrease of more than two million students between 2013 and 2022.

Northeast Ohio community colleges are finding themselves in the same situation but are continuing to evolve to meet the needs of students and the local economy. They’ve doubled down on flexibility and support, providing students with the right education to meet the job market and wrap-around services to meet any needs outside the classroom.

“We are starting to see people come in shorter term credential programs and shorter time frames because that works better for their life circumstances,” said Michael Baston, president of Cuyahoga Community College.

Enrollment at Tri-C has dropped from a high of 23,655 students in 2019 to 15,760 this fall. At Lorain Community College, the drop isn’t as drastic, but there are still about 2,000 less students this year when compared to 2019.

Between the two educational institutions, 85-90 percent of the graduates stay and work in Northeast Ohio.

“What we know is that when educational institutions produce great students that take that knowledge elsewhere, the community suffers,” Baston said.

One of the primary concerns with higher education is the value of the degree. Community colleges have historically been places where students of various ages and backgrounds earn credits and learn new skills. Community colleges offer a cheaper alternative for students who are looking for the most bang for their buck.

“I want to have the opportunity to be able to go to school locally. But I didn't want the pressure or the cost of a big university,” said Jordan Walker, a student at Tri-C.

As a result, community colleges have been forced to pivot, meeting the needs of traditional college students as well as working adults who want to return to school to explore new carer opportunities.

“If you tell them, ‘hey, I go to work.’ They’ll say ‘okay, we'll check and figure out what to do,’” said Evante Supter. “You tell them what you can put in with time just to work around what you're trying to do.”

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the challenge that community colleges were facing. Schools have been forced to find new ways to engage the workforce, focusing on shorter programs to get students into the job field quickly.

“We're preparing students for jobs that didn't exist ten years ago,” said Tracy Green, Vice President of strategic and institutional development at LCC. “Jobs in cybersecurity and microelectronics and electric, electric vehicles.”

Another element to consider when looking at dwindling enrollment is the number of high school graduates is declining across the country. According to the NCES, high school graduates are expected to be down 6% in Ohio this academic year when compared to five years ago.

Students say that even if they’re faced with the uncertainty of what to do, schools like Tri-C and LCC give students the chance to get a baseline education they can build on in the future.

“I suggest community college, period just for a financial background is cheaper,” Walker said. “You can get a lot of pre-reqs and you can at least get your associates out the way. Even if you don't decide to go on to get your bachelor's degree, you have already earned something.”

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