Enrollment continues to drop at southern Illinois community colleges

Community colleges in Southern Illinois are experiencing a significant long-term enrollment decline, not unlike colleges across the nation.

Numbers from the Illinois Board of Higher Education show that from 2012 to 2016, John A. Logan's head count fell 41 percent; Rend Lake College, 35 percent; and Shawnee Community College and Southeastern Illinois College, 13 percent each.

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported that this spring, overall post-secondary enrollments decreased 1.3 percent from the previous spring. For two-year public institutions, enrollment was down 2 percent across the nation.

But at John A Logan, the 10th-day head count for spring 2018 was 19.6 percent lower than spring 2017, and total credit hours dropped 4 percent.

"A large portion of this drop was in the Continuing Education area, which no longer enrolls credit students, and in the Center for Business and Industry, which lost many credit courses," said Eric Pulley, director of institutional research at Logan.

The combined total loss in these two areas was 880 students, accounting for 87.6 percent of the total overall head count loss. However, total credit hour loss for these areas was only 481.5.

"Some of the vocational-related training in both the Continuing Education department and the Center for Business and Industry has moved away from traditional vocational education to short-term, noncredit training," he said. "That follows a nationwide trend. And some of the credit courses were either dropped or were switched to noncredit status."

President Ron House called the "revamping and changing" of these courses as an ongoing process.

"It's been happening for well over a year and will continue for probably another year or so," he said. "Our courses had not been reviewed for many years, so it was time.

"Most of these changes have been the result of bringing our offerings more in line with the approval criteria established by the Illinois Community College Board," he said. "The overall impact of these changes in both enrollment and credit hour production is minimal."

Pulley said that head counts in the transfer and career areas of the college "provide a more accurate reflection of enrollment trends" because they enroll the more traditional-type of college student, one that carries a full-time load of about 12 credit hours, and because they represent about 94.2 percent of total enrollment.

"When looking solely at the transfer and career areas of the college, the total head count drop and the total credit hour drop was only 3.6 percent each," he said.

The other areas of the college are Adult Education, Business and Industry and Continuing Education, which combined, represent only 5.8 percent of total enrollment.

"Courses in the Center for Business and Industry tend to be 0.5 to 1.0 credits and therefore are disproportionate," Pulley said.

"For example, one less student in a Business and Industry course equals one less in total head count, but just 0.5 to 1.0 less in credit hours, while one less student in a Career Education course equals one less in total head count, but might also equal 12.0 less in credit hours."

While John A. Logan's enrollment decline is markedly steeper than other Southern Illinois community colleges, the spring numbers across the region paint a pretty negative picture.

At Rend Lake College at Ina, the head count for spring 2018 was down 17 percent 2017, and total credit hours dropped 7 percent.

At Southeastern Illinois college in Harrisburg, head count fell 7 percent from spring 2017 to spring 2018, and credit hours fell 8 percent.

And at Shawnee College in Ullin, enrollment dropped 15 percent from spring 2017 to spring 2018. Credit hours in the same time period dropped 3 percent.

"The enrollment at Shawnee has seen a consistent decline over the past 10 years for many reasons," said President Peggy Bradford.

"The sharpest drop comes as a result of comparing our enrollment to that of eight years ago when the college had its peak enrollment period.

"The primary reason for the peak in 2010 was due to the spike in unemployment.

The enrollment at institutions of higher learning will always follow unemployment trend lines," she said.

"In addition to this decline, there are some other factors to be considered, declining population, limited online courses and degrees, and failure to offer classes in areas students desire to enroll in or during times when students wish to attend classes. The good news is that we are currently increasing our opportunities for offering online courses and degrees, dual-credit courses, new programs in Career Technology and Education and transferable degree offerings.

We expect to reverse this trend by providing these additional options for our students," Bradford said.

There are a number of reasons for this nationwide enrollment decline at community colleges.

Illinois education officials blame higher tuition costs, less state funding (but more state pressure to improve), and more potential students working instead of enrolling.

Those in support of laying at least some of the blame on the state, cite the numbers.

State funding fell 36.9 percent from 2008 to 2017, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

That's the nation's third-highest reduction in state education funding. Only Arizona at 53.8 percent less and Louisiana at 43.9 percent were worse.

Many believe that when unemployment is low and jobs are easier to find, more adults choose earning over learning.

That belief is supported by data from Inside Higher Ed that shows two-year colleges have been coping with declining enrollments since 2009, when the Great Recession ended and the national unemployment rate began falling from about 10 percent to about four percent today.

The Educational Advisory Board (EAB) cites two trends, fewer adult learners age 25 and older, and the declining number of high school graduates as reasons for enrollment decline.

The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education takes that last reason a few years further, projecting the number of U.S. high school graduates to dramatically decrease by about half-a-million after 2025, from 3.5 million per year to about 3 million.

Part of the reason for this anticipated precipitous enrollment decline, according to experts, is because of low birthrates during the Great Recession (December 2007 through June 2009), which translate into fewer 18-to-22-year olds, the traditional age of college students, starting in 2025.

Another reason, according to the EAB, is the failure of community colleges to retain students.

The board found that out of every 100 students who apply to a two-year college, an average of 56 are lost before classes begin - when students are dealing with paperwork, placement testing, orientation and registration.

A total of 23 drop out, and only five are still enrolled after six years. Only nine out of 100 complete an associate degree and only seven complete a bachelor's degree.

Meanwhile, back in southern Illinois, the enrollment decline continued this summer.

John A. Logan College's total 10th-day head count for summer was down 26 percent from summer 2017, and total credit hours decreased by 7 percent.

But if you only use numbers from the transfer and career areas of Logan - as the director of institutional research at Logan directs - the numbers improve exponentially, to a head count drop of only 5 percent, and a credit hour drop of only 3 percent.

"The combined total loss in the Continuing Education area and in the Center for Business account for 82 percent of the total overall head count loss," Pulley said. "But the total credit hour loss for these two areas is only 351.5."

Pulley also pointed out that the 10th-day head count is an unduplicated count of all students enrolled for credit as of the 10th day of a semester.

But because the Center for Business and Industry contracts with area businesses to train employees as needed, credit enrollments there are subject to greater volatility.

"That's because there may or may not be any credit courses scheduled during the first 10 days of the semester," he said.

At Rend Lake College this summer, the 10th-Day unduplicated head count was .9 percent higher than summer 2017, while total credit hours decreased 6 percent.

Rob Betts, director of communications at Shawnee Community College, said that "10th-Day numbers were not yet available."

Southeastern is the single bright spot in an otherwise dark picture.

Their head count for summer fell 0.7 percent from summer 2017, and credit hours fell 0.6 percent.

At John A. Logan College, there are plenty of new ideas, plans, programs and initiatives to combat declining enrollments in the state and nation," said President Ron House.

"John A. Logan College continues to advocate and promote a bright future," House said. "We continue to grow our dual-credit programs, providing opportunities for students to transition to the college for reduced time and money."

House said the college has also expanded its online course offerings; expanded the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning program, hiring a second faculty member; and has just hired an agriculture instructor for a new agriculture program.

"We see growth in the areas of the applied sciences and computers," he said. "We are looking at the possible expansion of our Associate Degree in Nursing program, as well as other healthcare programs.

"The college has adopted a career exploration software, MajorClarity," he said.

"This is a software high schools can subscribe to that provides pathways for students to select a career path and transition to the college."

House also said that the college is working on an enrollment management plan, "one that will help each student set clear goals and objectives and apply measures to ensure continued growth."