'A positive sign': Community colleges see continued enrollment growth
Community colleges across the state saw a second semester of year-over-year enrollment gains.
For the first time since 2010, community colleges saw an average 7.2% increase in spring enrollments, according to a recent report from the Illinois Community College Board. In the fall, the ICCB reported an average year-over-year increase of 1.5% in student enrollment.
"This upward trend is encouraging and continues to signal a shift toward pre-pandemic levels," said Brian Durham, ICCB executive director. "This data furthers our confidence that efforts to expand learning opportunities and increase access to a community college education are working."
Systemwide, 39 community colleges saw enrollment increases, and nine saw a decrease.
Although Waubonsee Community College in Sugar Grove saw a slight decrease in fall 2022 enrollment numbers, it experienced one of the largest gains -- a 20.5% increase -- in spring 2023 enrollment.
"We're just really proud that our college remains a place where everyone can thrive," said Jamal Scott, vice president of strategy and community development at Waubonsee Community College.
College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Elgin Community College, Oakton College in Des Plaines, College of Lake County in Grayslake and Harper College in Palatine also saw increases in spring 2023 enrollments when compared to spring 2022.
Although none of the schools are back to pre-pandemic levels for enrollment, officials were optimistic.
"When you see increases in 39 schools, that's a good sign," said Bob Parzy, associate provost of enrollment services at Harper College. "It's a positive sign that people are coming out of this thing and figuring out that education has a real important role."
According to the report, enrollment increases in dual credit courses, adult education programs, English as a Second Language courses and career and technical education programs helped drive overall enrollment growth.
For example, Elgin Community College's dual credit program, where high school students can earn college credit, saw a 48% increase in enrollment from spring 2022 to spring 2023.
"More and more high school students are looking to get an early start on their college education," said Lauren Nehlsen, associate dean of recruitment, outreach services and global engagement at ECC.
At the College of DuPage, enrollment in dual credit courses increased by 26%, COD President Brian Caputo said, adding that dual credit students help build the college's future enrollment.
"Not every dual credit student comes to COD, but there is a propensity to do that," he said, adding some statistics indicate 80 of 100 students enrolled in dual credit courses pursue college degrees. "It's a great situation where you can get acclimated to college-level work for no cost."
Many area community colleges also pointed to targeted programs to help attract and retain students. ECC, for example, used grant funds to hire student success coaches, a program that fully launched last spring. Since its launch, about 650 academically vulnerable students have received support. The college also saw a 71% success rate in a pilot program that used student success coaches in literacy courses.
An increased focus on career readiness programs also helped drive enrollment gains, officials said.
At Harper College, enrollment in career and technical education programs makes up 16% of student enrollment. Elgin Community College, where students in CTE programs make up 26% of the college's total head count, is planning to build a $55 million manufacturing center that will provide state-of-the-art classroom space for HVAC-R, mechatronics, industrial maintenance, energy management, computer numerical controls and welding program.
Though community colleges have not reached pre-pandemic enrollment levels, the gap has significantly narrowed. ECC's spring 2023 head count, for example, is 307 fewer than in spring 2019. At COD, which has the largest enrollment of any community college, this spring's head count is 2,943 fewer than the 26,026 head count for the spring 2019 semester.
While gains must still be made to reach pre-pandemic levels, college officials remain optimistic, noting that community colleges offer value and convenience to students seeking to transfer to a university, those wanting to advance their career, or those looking for programs that will help train them for a job.
"People are seeing the longer opportunities are still better with an education," Parzy said. "Whatever the goal might be, we can help you get there."