Enrollment declined at Illinois community colleges again this fall, driven in part by a strong economy and low unemployment.
In all, 271,426 students were enrolled at Illinois’ 48 community colleges this fall. That’s down 4.2% from fall 2018, and it’s down 14.1% from this time five years ago, the Illinois Community College Board reported this week.
It’s concerning, said Illinois Community College Board Executive Director Brian Durham—but not necessarily surprising. Illinois’ jobless rate fell to a record low 3.9% in September. That labor market and the economy overall have an inverse relationship with community college enrollment, especially among adult students and those in career-technical education programs, Durham said.
“That usually is a reflection of the fact that people have employment, so they’re not having to come back and get training,” he said.
It’s a national trend, Durham said. And “nobody wants a bad economy,” so community colleges are “looking in every nook and cranny” for recruitment opportunities, he said.
“They always remain prepared to serve those students if something does happen and the economy does take a downturn,” Durham said.
The enrollment decline was felt at colleges around the state.
At Heartland Community College in Normal, there were 4,974 students to start the fall 2019 semester, down 1.8% from a year ago. Heartland was able to tout a 7% increase in new undergraduate students.
“It’s encouraging to see more new faces beginning their college career at Heartland,” President Keith Cornille said in a statement. “As we continue our strategic enrollment management efforts, we hope to see enrollment growth continue as the college continues its premier transfer preparation and also adds new Work Ready certification programs targeted at those in the community seeking to change or advance their career opportunities.”
At Illinois Central College in East Peoria, enrollment fell just 0.5%, down to 8,828 students. But enrollment is down 9% over the past five years.
Community colleges are adapting by adding more high-demand programs sought by employers, such as in cybersecurity, Durham said. Heartland Community College, for example, recently teamed up with McLean County’s Unit 5 high schools to launch a four-year associate’s degree program focused on computer science.
Another challenge cited by employers is workers lacking the essential or “soft” skills of a modern workplace, like how to show up on time or work together as a team, Durham said. Illinois community colleges have responded by infusing those soft skills throughout their curricula, such as asking students in welding programs to “clock in” like they will once they find a job.
“Community colleges really work to stay on the cutting edge of what folks need,” Durham said.