Community college enrollment declined 11 percent nationwide between 2012 and 2017, according to new research from the Southern Regional Education Board, a drop that may signal workforce trouble ahead as more jobs require advanced skills and credentials.
“The institutions most likely to prepare students for the types of jobs coming down the pike are probably two-year institutions,” says Susan Lounsbury, director of education data services for SREB. “To see them declining causes us some worry.”
In a period during which enrollment at four-year institutions remained nearly flat, falling figures at community colleges may represent a paradox. Thanks to the recent strong economy and low unemployment rate, many potential students likely sought paid work rather than invest in advancing their education in two-year programs, Lounsbury explains. But these same workers may soon suffer as the economy evolves and the types of positions they’re qualified for become increasingly threatened by automation.
“For a lot of low-skill jobs currently held by individuals who have only a high-school diploma, the simple reality is they’re not going to be there much longer,” says Stephen Pruitt, SREB president. “Robots aren’t kicking people out of their jobs, they’re going to create new jobs—but at a higher level.”
The Southern Regional Education Board is an interstate compact supported by 16 states in the Southeastern U.S. It publishes a higher education fact book every two years, analyzing national and regional data on college enrollment, completion and affordability.
Workforce readiness is a priority nationwide and a top concern among governors in southern states, Pruitt says. SREB research suggests there’s some reason for them to worry. The region has a higher percentage of low-skilled workers than elsewhere in the country, according to an economic outlook policy brief published in June, making it less attractive to businesses looking to hire for positions that require more advanced technical abilities.
These roles don’t necessarily require bachelor’s degrees, however—just skills that exceed what most high school educations provide. Sometimes called “new-collar jobs,” many of these occupations are in the health care and technology sectors. They include physical therapy and medical assistant, renewable energy technician, web developer and computer support specialist.
Community colleges are well-equipped to train people for these careers, and some have embraced opportunities to partner with employers to prepare students by offering certifications and associate degrees that correspond with hiring demands.
Recent research predicts that all kinds of colleges will soon have to adjust to demographic changes that will lead to decreased enrollments. Partly in response, some states are trying to lift community college enrollment by offering free or reduced tuition. A few programs, like one found in Arkansas, focus specifically on regional economic needs by pushing students to study STEM and other subjects that teach in-demand skills.
Other efforts to boost community college participation, and therefore strengthen the workforce, include targeting adults who have completed some coursework but never earned degrees and new approaches to remedial education that offer college credit, Lounsbury says.
Ultimately, Pruitt believes, getting more students into community college and ready for the jobs of the future will require improving access for people traditionally underserved by the education system.