The Mixed Methods Blog

Perspectives from our researchers, highlights from recent studies, and other news about CCRC

You Control Who You Enroll


Dr. Doreen Larson is the president of Edison State Community College in Ohio and was a featured speaker at CCRC’s 2022 Guided Pathways Summer Institute.

Higher education headlines are full of reports of enrollment declines, and community colleges are reporting the steepest losses. Many colleges are preparing for continuing declines and adjusting budgets to lower levels. Lower enrollments are attributed to rates of employment, changes in population, and high school graduation numbers. Little or no attention is paid to the actions of the institutions, which have far more influence on college enrollment than any of the frequently cited environmental factors.

There is good news and bad news on the topic of college enrollment. The good news is that changes in enrollment are largely if not entirely within the control of the college. The bad news is that changes in enrollment are largely if not entirely within the control of the college.

College enrollment need not be subject to the vagaries of the economy, competition with employment, or even the size of high school graduating classes. Typical community colleges are organized to respond well to a weak economy, but we can—and should—reorganize to equally thrive when jobs are plentiful, and populations are fluctuating. It is the within the control of the institution to make it harder or easier to enroll, to qualify for aid, to access classes, and to efficiently complete programs. External factors may guide students to our doorstep, but from there, we either create or remove barriers to access and completion.

For colleges interested in assuming responsibility for enrollment, some basic enrollment tools are at their command: timing, testing, transfer, and tuition.

Timing. Course scheduling is a good example of the type of timing that can powerfully impact enrollment. During the recession of 2008, many adults had time on their hands, and the traditional daytime course schedules with a sprinkling of online options worked for them. Community college enrollments soared. However, once adults’ time became less flexible, enrollment in community college courses declined. Despite that, colleges continued to roll over existing schedules rather than addressing the major changes in adults’ lives with new class times and formats.

For today’s student, access to fully online certificate and degree programs is essential. In-person courses remain attractive and are even required in some cases, but there is not a default need for face-to-face sections of every course. And online instruction should be more than a portion of a college’s overall course options—the goal should be 100% online access to all programs.

Testing. Community colleges inherited the culture of placement testing from the selective four-year sector. Consider an adult student, already unsure of their college ability, enrolling at an open-access community college. The student receives the typical enrollment checklist, and the next step is to sign up for placement testing. We quickly send a message to the student that we question their college readiness and will administer a test to affirm our assumptions. There is yet to be any college placement test with demonstrated validity or predictability, but we continue on this evaluation pathway nonetheless.

Community colleges have an opportunity to establish a culture of mutual respect and trust with students from the onset of the relationship. Colleges are dabbling in the use of measures such as high school GPA and technical course completion to reduce the use of standardized testing in course placement. Yet, instead of tweaking around the edges, community colleges should start with an assumption of college readiness as an integral part of their mission of open access. Self-placement tools are proving valid for students and advisors to determine appropriate entry-level courses. The time and resources traditionally expended on placement testing are better used in pathway advising and individual student planning.

Transfer. Considerable community college resources are focused on transferring credits forward to four-year programs. However, colleges often overlook opportunities to build transfer-in programs by accepting technical and training credits and thus engaging new populations in community college programs. Awarding credit for technical, vocational, and job training can jump-start a student’s entry into higher education and illustrate the value a community college places on work and life experience. The golden rule of transfer would read: Treat your transferring-in students as you would wish your transferring-out students to be treated.

Tuition. Tuition assistance funding specifically for community colleges students is growing, but community college students apply for scholarships and complete the FAFSA at lower levels than four-year students. While the public generally knows that community college tuition is lower than four-year college tuition, students still expect high costs and potential student loans, even for an associate degree. The power of free college, as demonstrated in College Promise programs, lies in the simplicity of eliminating the full cost of tuition.

Tuition waivers allow community colleges to target and incentivize enrollment by a particular student demographic or to grow particular courses and programs. Last-dollar programs that utilize Pell funding along with any applicable scholarships result in a surprisingly low net cost to the institution even for full tuition waiver initiatives. Full waiver programs are a powerful way to connect with new student populations and provide a rationale for FAFSA completion for students in any economic circumstance.

Taking responsibility for enrollment is both exciting and daunting. Colleges typically assume they will lose students between application and registration and blame external economic and demographic factors for impacting enrollment. However, enthusiasm and motivation quickly build when institutional changes result quickly in enrollment growth. Utilizing any of the enrollment tools discussed here—timing, testing, transfer, and tuition—will demonstrate that the power is in the hands of a college and will generate the close partnership with students that is the hallmark of the community college system.

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