Continued growth: Community colleges’ enrollments rise again

Isabela Olivarez initially planned to attend a four-year university after high school graduation.

But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and the 2020 Elgin High School graduate changed plans and decided to stay closer to home.

Now starting her third year at Elgin Community College, Olivarez said she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I found out I loved it here,” said Olivarez, who plans to attend a four-year university to pursue a degree in accounting after graduating from ECC with her associate degree next spring.

Like Olivarez, students across the suburbs are finding value in community colleges and boosting enrollment at them.

Elgin Community College’s fall enrollment of 9,616 students increased by 7.8% over last fall’s enrollment. Early figures indicate that ECC saw one of the larger enrollment increases in the suburbs.

“Students are more aware of what community colleges offer, and the stigma of what used to be associated with going to a two-year school or junior college is slowing going by the wayside,” said Lauren Nehlsen, associate dean of recruitment, outreach services and global engagement at ECC. “We do a lot for the community. And every student is an educational dream, not just a number.”

Last fall, the Illinois Community College Board reported a systemwide increase in student enrollment of 1.5%, the first time the board reported such an increase since 2009. The board again reported gains in the spring.

The board’s systemwide report for fall 2023 enrollments is expected in October. But early numbers indicate gains ranging from almost 2% at McHenry County College in Crystal Lake to a 10.6% increase at Waubonsee Community College in Aurora.

“When you have gains across the industry, that’s a good thing,” said Bob Parzy, associate provost of enrollment services at Harper College in Palatine, which saw a 5.4% increase in enrollment compared with that in fall 2022. “That says people are valuing education and the community college’s role.”

Traditional transfer students, such as Olivarez, can shave thousands off their college expenses by completing their first two years at a community college.

At the College of DuPage, for example, students can complete a two-year associate degree for about $10,000 ­– less than the cost of one year at many four-year institutions. The Glen Ellyn school saw fall enrollment increase by 5.8%, to 23,214, this year from 21,939 in 2022.

“Students are realizing they don’t need to go into a lot of debt,” COD President Brian Caputo said, adding that students can complete various coursework with degreed professors in smaller classes.

COD and other colleges continue to see an increase in demand for career and technical training programs. ECC has seen career and technical education enrollment increase by 12% overall in the past year.

Specific programs, such as truck driving or paramedic programs, have grown by more than 300% since fall 2021.

“Students are interested in training for in-demand careers,” Nehlsen said.

ECC plans to build a $55 million manufacturing center to keep up with demand for such programs. The College of Lake County, which saw a 5.4% overall increase in student enrollment this fall, opened a new advanced technology center last fall.

Matt Huber, Oakton College’s dean of enrollment management, noted that technical training programs or certificate programs allow students to find jobs with livable wages within a shorter time frame. It also affords those in the workforce a chance to update their skills or find a new career route.

“Our biggest increase was in our students seeking career outcomes,” Huber said.

Overall, the Des Plaines college’s fall enrollment of 6,282 represents a 4.6% increase from last fall. However, the number of students seeking career outcomes – through a certificate program or an associate degree –increased by 9.7%, Huber said.

Although suburban colleges have seen significant gains in the past year, some still reported initial decreases.

Early enrollment numbers for Joliet Junior College, for example, show a 3.4% decrease over last fall’s head count of 10,212. JJC officials, however, expect that they will see an overall increase once dual-credit and “flex-start” courses, which typically are shorter than 16-week classes, begin.

The Joliet college noted a 17% enrollment increase for students ages 17 to 20. College officials credited increased recruitment efforts at area high schools.

As community colleges see enrollment gains, Nehlsen said it is important for colleges to remain relevant. She noted that a continued decline in birth rates will make it more challenging for colleges.

“Community colleges are uniquely placed to meet the needs of their community,” she said. “But what’s going to be a challenge is making sure that they’re able to adapt and be flexible to the challenges that are ahead.”