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Maryland community colleges attempt to recover from enrollment declines

Eli Kales//July 3, 2023

Maryland community colleges attempt to recover from enrollment declines

By Eli Kales

//July 3, 2023

New graduates line up before the start of a community college commencement in East Rutherford, N.J., May 17, 2018. A federal judge in St. Louis on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022, dismissed an effort by six Republican-led states to block the Biden administration's plan to forgive student loan debt for tens of millions of Americans. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)
Credit headcount enrollment at Maryland community colleges has declined steadily since 2012, both for full-time and part-time students. (AP File Photo/Seth Wenig)

Maryland community colleges are exploring ways to recover from a decade-long decline in enrollment fueled by the post-pandemic era and a tight labor market.

Credit headcount enrollment has declined steadily since 2012, both for full-time and part-time students. While overall enrollment declined in 2022 by 2.2%, first-time, full-time enrollment rose by 8%, suggesting the possibility that more people see community college as a viable choice.

The decline in enrollment at community colleges is not a trend unique to Maryland; the number of community college students across the United States has decreased by 37% since 2010, losing nearly 2.6 million students. Enrollment declines are not the only challenges community colleges face; two-year community colleges have the worst completion rates of any kind of university or college, and only around 40% of students complete their degree within six years. 

Brad Phillips, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Colleges, said that despite the overall decrease, the positive change in first-time, full-time enrollment gives him cautious optimism of a turnaround.

The increase in the first-time students may reflect the possibility that many who had not enrolled in community college during the pandemic due to the need to stay home and help with child care or other responsibilities now are deciding it’s the right time to return to school and pursue a degree, Phillips said. 

With a rising minimum wage and the possibility of finding good jobs without attending community college, many recent high school graduates had opted to jump straight into the workforce, he said.

Montgomery College has experienced a steady decline in enrollment since 2012. During the fall 2022 semester, Montgomery College reported a 1% decrease in students and a 2% decrease in credits from the previous year. However, Montgomery College saw improvement this past spring, increasing the number of students by 1% and credits by 3%, the first term with an increase in both students and credit average in years.

John Hamman, chief analytics and insights officer for Montgomery College, said enrollment for the summer term is 4% higher than last year, and officials believe fall enrollment could increase by up to 9.5%.

Hamman said the enrollment decline was caused by a number of factors that existed before the pandemic, including increased competition among community colleges and questions regarding the value of pursuing a college degree. Then, during the pandemic, Hamman said, many people were hesitant to make long-term commitments such as enrolling in a degree program.

Tyson Beale, vice president for student affairs at Prince George’s Community College, said that PGCC has also experienced a decline in enrollment, reflecting the challenges many prospective students faced during the pandemic.

Beale said that despite the overall decline over the past few years, PGCC saw a swell in its dual enrollment, with increased offerings for high school students to engage in college-level coursework.

Phillips said community colleges have begun to look at ways to appeal to students who may be attracted to entering the workforce rather than community colleges, such as shortening the traditional time frame of the semester and providing offerings for short-term credentials and licensures. Community colleges have seen growth in continued education offerings and licensures, providing pathways to employment.

Montgomery College is making an effort to allow people to plan out for their long-term degree and see the potential outcomes they can achieve by pursuing a community college education. Many jobs that now require collegiate experience have reinvigorated the belief in the value of college education, officials said.

Montgomery College administrators are seeking to ensure their degrees map clearly to occupations. Creating offerings that appeal to distinct types of students, including traditional and non-traditional, dual enrollment, and remote options, may allow the school to boost enrollment, Hamman said.

PGCC has looked into how to best support students’ needs, evaluating services and support for students whose return to a college environment is complicated by mental health and wellness challenges. Beale said those efforts include establishing partnerships with local food banks and supporting students with transportation and housing needs.

Beale said a priority for PGCC in addressing the decline in enrollment is to listen to students discuss their needs and then align their polices based on those perspectives. 

PGCC is also seeing a slight increase in enrollment this summer, with 5% more students than in 2022. Officials anticipate a 6% increase for the fall semester. Beale emphasized that while he anticipates an incremental increase, sustained enrollment growth will take a long-term commitment from the school.

(The Associated Press contributed to this story.)


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