A difficult decade for community colleges

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Although enrollment at MCC declined dramatically from 2012 to 2022, it mirrors the trend at community colleges statewide and across the nation. (Photo by Paul Ericson)

After seven years with the Marine Corps, Adam Barrett returned to the Finger Lakes region in 2017 to begin a new career and raise a growing family. His first jobs after military service were in supervisory roles, but he saw limited opportunities for advancement.

So, Barrett did what many other people in his situation have done before: He went back to school. 

Barrett was hired by Dailey Electric Inc. after completing a 10-week Jumpstart program at Monroe Community College and last month completed his studies, graduating with an associate degree in HVAC.

Adam Barrett

“I wanted to shorten my learning curve as I transitioned into a new career field,” he says. “MCC has allowed me to quickly and successfully pivot into the energy sector without experiencing a major financial setback.”

While community college made sense for Barrett and the other 2,000 or so students graduating from MCC this year, many more potential students are making a different choice in their postsecondary careers.

From 2012 to 2022, data from the SUNY system indicates, MCC enrollment fell from 17,000 to 8,000—a drop of more than half. While MCC enrollment decline is particularly dramatic, it mirrors the trend at community colleges statewide and across the nation.

While the drop has begun to ease, it remains a challenge. Since state and county funding for community colleges is often tied to enrollment level, it could negatively affect an important part of the postsecondary ecosystem. 

For example, an overview of MCC’s 2020-2021 gross budget reflected a decrease of $2.7 million (2.3 percent) as compared to the 2019-2020 budget primarily linked to a decrease in budgeted enrollment. The base state aid that school year remained unchanged at $2,947 per full-time student, though there was a decrease of 1,136 FTE students. Yearly tuition rates were raised by $326 (7 percent).

Advocates argue that public schools, particularly community colleges, provide cheaper options and alternative job training for an underserved population. Changes that support student success—including flexible programs and training in high-demand fields—are being implemented, they say. 

“While the rate of enrollment decline at MCC has slowed significantly in fall 2022, we remain focused on reversing the downward trend,” says Christine Casalinuovo-Adams, associate vice president of enrollment management at MCC.

“Colleges and universities have been aware of this trend for several years and have been preparing,” adds Lenore Friend, director of public relations and communications at Finger Lakes Community College.

Statewide, from 2021 to 2022, community colleges saw a decline of only 1,100 students in fall enrollment, much less than in previous years. 

National picture

The decline in the number of U.S. community college students has been on researchers’ radars for years. Davis Jenkins, senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Community College Research Center at Teachers College, calls this current phase a “reckoning.”

In the decade ending in 2022, enrollment in community colleges nationwide declined from 6.7 million to 4.4 million, or roughly one-third, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. Spring numbers showed some improvement, but it was a slight increase mostly due to dual enrollment of high schoolers.

“Despite encouraging signs of recovery among younger students at community colleges, overall undergraduate enrollment is still well below pre-pandemic levels, especially among degree-seeking students,” says Doug Shapiro, executive director of the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. “With the pandemic now behind us, a new set of factors appears to be preventing students from returning to campuses.”

A report this year by Jenkins and fellow CCRC researcher John Fink echoes this assessment. They found that high schoolers now comprise nearly one in five community college students nationwide and, in New York, were almost one-quarter of the student body.

New York’s numbers

Data from the SUNY system shows that public postsecondary schools in New York are in a similar boat. From 2012 to 2022, there was a 6 percent decrease in student enrollment at four-year public universities and a 34 percent drop at community colleges.

While they also have seen enrollment declines, four-year institutions are faring better than their community college counterparts. The number of students in SUNY four-year programs actually overtook community colleges in 2016 and stayed relatively steady before posting a steeper dropoff from 2020 to 2021.

Statewide, schools that have notably bucked the trend of declining enrollment are SUNY Binghamton, SUNY Stony Brook, and the State University of New York at Buffalo, all of which posted increases of 19 percent, 7 percent, and 10 percent, respectively. Sullivan County is the only community college that grew its enrollment during the 2012-22 time frame; it increased 4 percent.

Enrollment decline has been far more common at SUNY institutions. There was a decrease of 24 percent in average and median student numbers across the state. Buffalo State College, and Westchester, Onondaga, Erie, Nassau, and Monroe community colleges—all with student populations of at least 10,000 in 2012—took big hits.

Among regions statewide, enrollment declined the most in the Finger Lakes (34 percent). The only region that posted growth was the Southern Tier, where enrollment grew by less than 1 percent.

In the Rochester region, enrollment at FLCC, SUNY Brockport, SUNY Geneseo, and Genesee Community College has dropped 18 percent, 22 percent, 24 percent and 37 percent, respectively.

However, the overall decline is largely driven by MCC, the largest SUNY institution in the area. Once rivaling the numbers of four-year public institutions, from fall 2012 to 2022, its enrollment has fallen more than 50 percent. Clinton Community College, which dropped from 2,200 to 900 students, was the only institution statewide with a greater decrease.

For MCC, the decrease follows a steady linear pattern over the decade. By contrast, SUNY Brockport and SUNY Geneseo both saw steep declines starting in 2018.

Reasons for the decline

Factors that might explain the enrollment decline could include difficulties with the community college system or a sense of disillusionment with the postsecondary system, but Friend says there is an overlooked, and more basic, explanation.

“Part of what (we) are seeing is the cyclical nature of community college enrollment. You have selected 2012 as the starting point, but that reflects the end of the Great Recession enrollment surge,” says Friend.Enrollment peaked in 2009, then began to fall as those students moved through their courses and the economy improved. For reference, fall enrollment (at FLCC) in 2008, right before the recession, was 5,750.”

“When enrollment spiked during the Great Recession, we expected it would go down and we know demographic changes would put downward pressure on enrollment as well. The decline we are seeing was expected,” she continues.

A 2019 report from the National Association of Community Colleges in part supports that view, with enrollment reaching over 8 million in 2010. Yet it also shows that in 2001, community colleges had over 6 million students, nearly 2 million more than the current level.

Demographic changes, though, are a widely accepted factor in enrollment declines. They can be particularly significant for community colleges.

For example, MCC reported in fall 2022 that 80 percent of students served were residents of Monroe County and 65 percent were younger than 24 years old. Across New York, comparing 2010 and 2020 census data reveals an increase of 3 percent total population—but among 18 to 24 year olds, the population declined by 8 percent.

The Finger Lakes region saw an even higher—11 percent—decrease among this younger population. Other notable regions of high decline include the Western New York and New York City regions, with declines of 12 and 16 percent among 18 to 24 year olds. The Long Island and Hudson Valley regions were the only areas where the youth population increased (4 percent and 6 percent).

Christine Casalinuovo-Adams

Jenkins and Finks’ report found that students under 18, usually dual-enrolled high schoolers, were the only growing age group in recent years. The 18-to-24 age group, in fact, was the fastest-declining group. MCC’s Casalinuovo-Adams notes that this decline creates a heightened competition for smaller pools of high schoolers.

Additionally, she says there is increased competition for adult students like Barrett. Online programs, on-the-job training, other job-training programs, and professional certification such as RIT Certified can all be other options for working adult learners.

The report also finds a decline in attendance at community colleges by students of color. Students of Hispanic descent, a demographic that was previously continuing to rise even as other segments fell, also dropped in recent years.

Community colleges often serve underrepresented populations. At MCC, 45 percent of students in 2022 were non-white. At FLCC, 24 percent are students of color, which is higher than the population of color in the FLCC service area of Ontario, Wayne, Seneca and Yates counties (where the percentage of people of color is 5 to 6 percent).

What is being done?

Even with the extra pressure, local community colleges are working to remain competitive.

For example, Friend says FLCC’s ability to react quickly to short- and long-term needs in the health care industry prompted the college to expand its nursing program and develop more health care-related educational programs.

“In other words, our goal is to stabilize enrollment by offering relevant programming based on what is happening in the local economy,” she says.

In addition, FLCC has adjusted to provide more flexibility to students by offering HyFlex, online and remote courses, and expanded non-credit training and basic education work, areas that often get overlooked. Friend says short-term training programs, many of which are covered by grants at FLCC, can give people specialized skills in several weeks or a few months.

Officials at FLCC and MCC believe affordable tuition is one of the strengths of the community college program.

“About 80 percent of FLCC students qualify for financial aid, and even those making middle-class incomes can qualify for the Excelsior Scholarship, which covers tuition for any SUNY school,” says Friend.

“Our faculty work closely with area four-year college faculty to ensure courses are compatible for transfer, allowing students to save thousands of dollars by enrolling at MCC, then transferring,” says Casalinuovo-Adams. “It is important to note that more than 60 percent of MCC students graduate with no debt. 

“Our low tuition—currently at $2,378 per semester—with credits that transfer to colleges across the country remains a great financial incentive for our students.”

SUNY Brockport and Geneseo list tuition at $3,535 per semester for New York residents. University of Rochester tuition averages $28,000 per semester depending on the program.

MCC’s Vision2027 Strategic Plan highlights student enrollment as one of five high-priority areas during the next five years.

In order to increase both student recruitment and retention, MCC is focusing on a new advising model; awarding of scholarships, Free Application for Federal Student Aid  completion and emergency resources for students; designing a new website experience; and expanding marketing and communication efforts.

In addition, College Now dual-enrollment for high schoolers continues to grow, as Jenkins and Finks have reported. For adult learners, Casalinuovo-Adams also points to the recent rise of apprenticeship program participation at MCC as well as “microcredentials” designed for short-term learning options.

Further, Pathways to MCC and Strong Foundations are grant-funded programs that are designed to support non-high school graduates and students whose first language is not English.

“One of the strengths of a community college is our ability to provide accessible educational and training opportunities for our students as well as providing wraparound support services aimed at eliminating barriers to personal success,” Casalinuovo-Adams says. “MCC is our community’s college and is an essential part of Rochester’s economic success.”

Jacob Schermerhorn is a Rochester Beacon contributing writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

4 thoughts on “A difficult decade for community colleges

  1. Two year colleges are doing what Edison Technical and Industrial High School did back in the day. In the day (1960’s to 1970’s) Edison required a test. Can’t have that, test eliminated. It was an all boy’s school, can’t have that either, opened to girls. Edison HAD a graduation rate in the high 90’s and a job placement record to match. With a high school graduation rate in the low 50% almost half of the urban students do not even qualify to attend MCC. The others struggle because the urban system has drummed down the programs to give NYS what it wants…… statistical success and could care less about the level of learning. Consequently when those that do graduate and attend college, their journey is short lived because they don’t have the level of education required to keep up with the academic demands. It’s one thing if you drop out, it’s a whole other thing if you graduate high school and think you can navigate college level learning, only to find out you’ve been shortchanged by a system that focusses on statistics not the required level of education. I don’t know if this is still the case, but at one time all kids who graduated from the urban system got a free ride to college. Few took advantage. I’ve said it once and will say it again, educational failure is the root cause for much of urban Rochester’s woes. It ushers in crime, drug use, drug dealing, teenage pregnancy and all the other woes. It is also a major contributor to generational poverty. We need to get the word out that education is a ticket out of generational poverty. It’s great to have MCC, but useless to most who attend urban schools because they are either poorly prepared for college level learning or drop out of high school to the streets.

  2. I’ve taught at two private, four-year universities in the last 10 years, and observed a clear decline in many students’ ability to focus. This began during the COVID pandemic, almost like a form of PTSD, and continues today. I wouldn’t be surprised if a study documented this, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that it’s a contributing factor to the enrollment decline described in Mr. Schermerhorn’s article.

  3. Community Colleges Need Better Motivational Aids (and Outside Help)
    I am very sorry to learn that MCC and other community colleges have been losing enrollment.
    Perhaps they need some OUTSIDE ADVICE.
    I taught Electronic Technology at MCC, in the early 1980s. One day I brought a music RELAXATION recording. When I played it, the students seemed to get very relaxed. This amazed me, but I never played the music, again. I was there to teach electronics, not relaxation.

    Now, I suggest MOTIVATION and RELAXATION, to Rochester Schools, but no one seems to be interested, in outside advice. Perhaps I should go back to MCC and other colleges, in the area, and urge them to try some aids, to relax and motivate students and teachers. “One man’s trash, is another man’s treasure.”

    I set up a web page: http://www.SavingSchools.org where I store some helpful resource materials, that anyone can use. And I am available to HELP any teacher, or school administrator, with or without pay.

    Thanks so much for this enlightening story.
    “Better to light one candle, than curse the darkness” Harry S. Pearle, Ph.D.

  4. Wow, a pertinent subject with a disturbing mega-trend. I’ll add some more anecdotal examples; Cazenovia College recently closed, SUNY Broome is in talks with Binghamton University to merge (trying to ride the trend of University enrollment being up , 2 yr enrollment is down). To further illustrate how disturbing this is for the future, this is happening in a environment where Sat admissions tests have basically been eliminated, Regents level testing is being considered for the trash bin, and the Gov recently declared thousands of high school grads will be “automatically enrolled” in 2yr College. Add in state aide & the Excelsior Scholarship, all you need is a pulse to get into some of these schools. (in theory they should be overflowing with students). Don’t forget that the Fed’s just dumped a bunch of Semiconductor Chip funding into the State (at a cost to the taxpayer by some estimates of $600K /job).
    Unfortunately this has to be one of the artifacts of flight to other states. We are seeing it in the local (grade) school districts (to my knowledge Monroe County school district is still under SEC investigation for failing to disclose their loss in enrollment). The seeming trend of College age people to stay home and not wanting to commute may be a factor as well. Given the poor growth in NYS, I hope there are jobs or other placement on the finishing end of these 2yr programs. If I was pursuing college today, I’d ask the recruiter what companies they are collaborating with for curriculum and placement. As a graduate of a 2yr college program myself that launched my career and afforded me a company supported Bachelor Degree program, Community Colleges are a affordable vehicle to a added value career (as opposed to Union agitation @ Starbucks).

    Lets hope this turns around fast, otherwise, the taxpayer can’t afford to have empty buildings setting around on college campuses.

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