If a recession hits, community college enrollment may worsen - plan now

In a recession, community colleges will need quality workforce programs to win back students.
Blog Post
June 24, 2022

Predictions of a recession are getting louder. If a recession hits, community college leaders should see it as an opportunity to convince students to come back to school. When the pandemic and subsequent recession occurred, many college leaders expected more students to enroll, which is typical during times of economic downturn.

If wages are cut and jobs are less plentiful, students bear a lower opportunity cost and can justify taking the time and money to invest in further education. Unfortunately, the opposite happened following the pandemic, and the enrollment picture hasn’t improved. It’s expected to get worse.

Five consecutive semesters of enrollment decline have plagued community colleges, and would-be students are losing out too. With inflation cutting purchasing power up to eight or nine percent, prospective students are choosing work over college, taking advantage of higher wages brought about by the pandemic-induced tight labor market.

But if a recession hits this year or next, wage increases and the surplus of job opportunities may dry up. We have been studying strategic enrollment strategies community colleges should leverage to attract back students for workforce programs. Below are a few tips for community colleges to enact now to stem enrollment declines in a recession.

Four tips for community college leaders to stem enrollment declines in an economic recession:

  1. Focus marketing on stackable but short-term workforce programs: Some students may be convinced to pursue associate’s or bachelor’s degrees during the recession, but many will still find degree-based programs a daunting financial and time investment. Data shows an increased demand for short-term, non-degree programs, and more employers, governments, and education providers are expanding these pathways to quality jobs. A credit-bearing workforce program or a non-credit program with pathways to credit can lead directly to a high-quality job while nudging students closer to a degree.
  2. Focus on “earn and learn” opportunities, including apprenticeships: What’s better than going to college to gain the skills you need to get a high-paying job? Getting paid for it. Now is the time to scale up paid work-based learning programs with employer partners, so if a recession hits, your offerings are ready to attract students in need. Apprenticeships are the gold standard in “earn and learn” models. Plus, in twenty-four states, community colleges offer applied baccalaureate degrees. Colleges in these states should expand degree-connected or credit-bearing apprenticeship programs that combine the best of an apprenticeship with the best of a bachelor’s degree.
  3. Leverage state funding programs to increase affordability: States like Virginia, California, and Indiana offer funding to subsidize short-term workforce programs at community colleges. Colleges should tie these opportunities specifically to the programs targetted towards learners coming back to wait out to recession. Some colleges have told us that even free programs struggle to attract students as inflation and higher wages make it harder to pick school over work (even part-time), but that picture may change in a recession.
  4. Improve the quality of workforce offerings and wraparound services: The truth is many short-term college workforce programs lead to jobs that are only marginally better than the jobs students had before college. Since many students are likely to pursue short-term programs, now is the time to ensure that workforce offerings at your college are worth their salt. Our New Models for Career Preparation project will produce resources later this year to help colleges do just that. For now, these tips apply, including ensuring the closest possible link between employer needs and your workforce offerings; concrete goals to address occupational segregation and equity, including by expanding wraparound service availability and awareness for non-degree, workforce students, and using labor market information and direct employer conversations to drive program planning, design, and evaluation protocols.

In the best-case scenario, the “soft landing” hoped by the Federal Reserve will be achieved, and inflation will be tamed without a recession.

But even in that reality, these proactive tactics will help colleges convince more students to come back and continue advancing their career through further education.

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Shalin Jyotishi is a Senior Policy Analyst on Education and Labor at New America and a Fellow in AI with the Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution at the World Economic Forum. Follow Shalin on Twitterand LinkedIn.

Related Topics
Workforce Development & CTE Economic Equity Adult Education