Chemeketa Community College in Salem has seen enrollment decline by more than 40 percent during the last decade. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Oregon’s 17 community colleges have managed to slow steep pandemic drops in enrollment according to figures released Friday but their future is uncertain. 

Last year, the total student headcount was down 23% from the year before. This year, it slowed to a drop of less than 1%. 

Still, community colleges enroll 60,000 fewer students today than they did a decade ago – a 40% drop – as Oregon’s population has grown. 

There are three central reasons for this decline. 

One is that in 2012, the country was coming out of an economic recession that had driven many adults back into community colleges for training that could lead to new jobs. Many people had been laid off, wanted to learn new skills and earn more money. 

The enrollment numbers were high, almost doubling, according to Ben Cannon, executive director at the state Higher Education Coordinating Commission.

“Where we’re at today with enrollment is where we were at before the Great Recession,” Cannon said. “We’re accustomed to seeing enrollment numbers largely in line with the economy.”

The second reason for the decline is that as the economy in the state improved and more jobs were available, fewer people enrolled in community colleges. Between 2012 and 2019, the enrollment dropped by about 2% each year, ostensibly because more people could, once again, make good money at a job that didn’t require the training and the tuition. 

The third reason for the steep drop: Coronavirus. Classes went online last year but tuition remained stable. Many students uninterested in paying full freight for remote classes, or the many adult students who were already working on top of school, opted out of community college classes. 

Overall, community college enrollment in Oregon is down about one-fourth from pre-pandemic levels. At four-year schools, it’s down about 5%, but some institutions have fared better. Oregon State University reported record enrollment this fall.

Despite the economic upheaval occurring as the pandemic continues, the state and country have not seen the same mass enrollment in higher education that followed the 2008 recession. There are a record number of job openings in the U.S. and a decline in job seekers. 

It’s helped drive up wages for work that doesn’t require a degree. In Oregon, some fast food restaurants are offering up to $18 an hour. A certified, entry-level teacher’s aide working with students in special education in Portland Public Schools earns about the same. 

“I think that 10-year decline looks pretty alarming, but 10 years ago we were at this strange time. An unusual time to use as the benchmark,” Cannon said. “But I would be very concerned if we continued to see these types of enrollment declines.”

Cam Preus, executive director for the Oregon Community College Association, said that during the last couple decades there’s also been a reframing of priorities when it comes to enrollment that might have contributed to some declines. 

“Two decades ago we just talked about access,” she said. “Now we talk about access, and retention, progression, completion.” 

Despite seeing somewhat steady declines in the aftermath of the Great Recession, “no one anticipated the drop we had from covid,” she said. 

She said the Great Recession was about accommodating growth. Now, community colleges are accommodating a massive contraction, and a decline in the state’s overall number of high schoolers down the line. 

“If you look at the high school population in Oregon, once you get to 2025, it goes down. We aren’t gonna have as many high school graduates. And the competition among two- and four- year institutions will be fiercer than it is now,” she said.

As for whether these declines could lead to the closure of some community colleges in the future, “We can’t preclude those conversations,” she said. “I don’t want to say we’ve never thought about it or wouldn’t think about it.” 

At Chemeketa Community College in Salem, enrollments are down 20% since the pandemic began and about 6% since last year. 

Marie Hulett, Chemeketa’s executive director of institutional advancement, said the college is expecting more students to enroll with the return of in-person classes, but also expect the popularity of their online offerings to grow. 

hey hadn’t offered live online and hybrid online/in-person classes before the pandemic. Now, 41% of students enrolled this fall are in these types of classes.

“It’s just better for childcare, for commuting, for work schedules,” Hulett said.

They have a lot of ground to regain. Enrollment at Chemeketa Community College is down 42% since 2012, a loss of nearly 7,000 students.

Source: Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission

Community colleges tend to be more sensitive to changing economic situations, and they tend to serve older students, who are managing jobs and families on top of school, according to the Center for Community College Student Engagement. 

In 2012, one in five college undergraduates in the country was a single mother. Nearly half of them were enrolled in community colleges, according to a report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. In Oregon, the average age of a community college student is 25. 

Community colleges also tend to have more low-income students. During the 2019-2020 school year, 62% of Oregon’s community college students were eligible for Pell Grants, a federal scholarship for low-income students. 

State Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, is chair of the Senate Education Committee. He said his concern over community college enrollment peaked with the steep drop last year. 

“I felt we were gonna have to go out of our way to lure students back,” he said. 

The legislature earlier this year required public colleges and universities to adopt a system of credits that could be transferred across institutions. That will take full effect in 2023.

Dembrow is concerned about continued community college enrollment drops this year, but said they indicate other issues the legislature needs to address in the next session in February.

“We're also talking about things like childcare and other wrap-around services that we’re going to need to address as part of larger workforce development investments,” Dembrow said. 

Dembrow said community colleges have been dealing with difficult financial situations because of economic volatility and enrollment. 

“We did increase their funding last year at record levels despite enrollment being down,” he said.

Depending on the college, between one-third and half of Oregon community colleges’ funding comes from tuition, according to the Higher Education Coordinating Commission. The rest comes from state appropriations and local property taxes.

Many policy makers had hoped that the Oregon Promise would boost enrollment. That grant program introduced during the 2016-17 school year that covered two years of community college tuition for the state’s recent high school grads. It made Oregon the second state in the nation to provide such free community college, after Tennessee.

But enrollment continued to decline. Because many community college students are adults returning to school, few students qualify for the grants. 

In the 2020-21 school year, only about 5% of all community college students received an Oregon Promise grant, according to the Higher Education Coordinating Commission. 

Preus, of the Oregon Community College Association, was working at Blue Mountain Community College when the Oregon Promise was implemented. 

“Most of us anticipated we’d have a higher takeup rate of Oregon students,” she said. “We saw a 5% increase, not a 25% increase.”

Members of the Oregon House and Senate Committees on Education recently wrote to President Joe Biden urging him to put two years of free community college back into the Build Back Better framework that has yet to pass Congress. That plan would have applied to everyone enrolling in community colleges. 

Cannon said that proposal could be a game changer for higher education and Oregon’s workforce. He noted workforce gaps in health care, bilingual teachers and advanced manufacturing, and the role community colleges could play in filling them.

“For states, including Oregon, to realize the promise of postsecondary education, it will require federal participation and investment to broaden access and equity,” he said. 

Considering the years ahead Cannon explained that his commission works closely with the state Employment Department to figure out what workforce needs will be and how to design educational programs to fill those needs.

“We expect a growing need for the kind of training community colleges provide,” Cannon said. “If we’re not pulling ourselves up over the next several years, our economy and our communities are gonna be in real trouble.”

CORRECTION: Chemeketa Community College hasn't previously offered live online classes. An earlier version of this story misstated the status of online offerings. The college enrollment is down 6% from last year. An earlier version reported an incorrect figure provided by the state.

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