Students walk on the Everett Community College campus on Wednesday. From fall 2014 to fall 2016, the county’s unemployment fell .8 percent. At EvCC, the head count of students declined by 2.7 percent during that time. (Ian Terry / The Herald)

Students walk on the Everett Community College campus on Wednesday. From fall 2014 to fall 2016, the county’s unemployment fell .8 percent. At EvCC, the head count of students declined by 2.7 percent during that time. (Ian Terry / The Herald)

A strong economy means community college enrollment drops

As unemployment falls, schools in Snohomish County and elsewhere report declines.

EVERETT — It is a reality of economic recovery: When unemployment rates dip, community college enrollment often follows.

That’s what has been happening in Snohomish County and across the state and nation in recent years.

A 2015 article in Insider Higher Ed says that as a general rule of thumb, community college enrollment tends to decline by about 2.5 percent for every 1 percent drop in the unemployment rate.

From fall 2014 to fall 2016, Snohomish County’s unemployment rate fell from 5.1 percent to 4.3 percent, a 0.8 percent dip. At EvCC, the head count of students declined by 2.7 percent during that time. In terms of actual numbers, it dropped from 10,163 in the fall quarter 2014 to 9,745 in fall 2017.

At Edmonds Community College, the downturn was more profound, from 12,072 to 10,806 between the fall quarter of 2014 and last fall.

Four-year universities, which typically get more applications than they have slots, often don’t feel the same sting. Community colleges accept anyone with a high school diploma who wants to enroll. A vibrant job market can undercut enrollment.

“For low-income students, especially at colleges where tuition is low and often covered by financial aid, the biggest cost of college is the opportunity cost — the money a student could have earned by working instead of going to school,” the Insider Higher Ed article said.

The Mukilteo School Board recently received a report on college enrollment trends among the district’s graduates for a period covering several years. While most of the district’s graduates attend college, “enrollment rates of graduates at two-year and four-year colleges have slowly declined as the economy improved,” the report concluded.

It found that the percentage of high school students attending college within two years of graduating ebbed from 78.4 percent to 68.6 percent between 2009 and 2015

Many students know they will be headed off to college from early in life. For many others, the decision boils down to personal finances and job opportunities at a given moment in time, said Pete Bylsma, the Mukilteo district’s director of assessment and program evaluation.

The mindset can come down “to making money rather than paying money for an education you hope will pay off but there is no guarantee,” he said.

Stephanie Horrocks is a counselor at Mariner High School. She helps students prepare for life after high school in many ways, including planning for college, technical school, the job market, military and missions.

It is hard for her to detect a drop in college enrollment day by day. The district’s annual report on graduates helps keep track of the trend lines.

“There is a perfect storm going on right now,” she said. “The number of jobs in the trades is on the increase with baby boomers retiring. The job market is changing. Many of the jobs don’t require a four-year degree.”

Community colleges nationwide experienced a surge in enrollment a decade ago when the recession hit. The number of students enrolled in credit-bearing courses and community colleges in fall 2009 increased by 11.4 percent from the previous year and 16.9 percent from fall 2007, according to an American Association of Community Colleges report. Much of the push was dislocated workers returning for retraining and recently graduated college students exploring their options.

The head count at Washington state’s community and technical colleges grew steadily during the recession, hitting 268,005 during the 2010-11 school year. A year ago, it had fallen to 227,862.

“When the economy crashed, we were just bursting at the seams with students,” said Danielle Carnes, EdCC’s executive director of strategic enrollment management.

Community colleges historically have been nimble in responding to community needs, she said.

Part of her job is to forecast enrollment trends. Another aspect is to anticipate changes in the workforce and ways the college can offer courses to fill those demands. She’s looking for tomorrow’s jobs today.

“We have to keep looking out and say, ‘What’s next?’ ”

Meanwhile, leaders at Everett Community College have expanded efforts to reach out to young students.

“We are working to capture more students who may not have initially thought they would go on to higher education,” said John Olson, the college’s vice president for college advancement. “Our increased outreach to historically underserved populations, our increased offerings in Running Start and College in the High School, and our close collaboration with district administrators and counselors are deliberate efforts to maintain and grow enrollments.”

Despite an overall loss of students, there hasn’t been much financial impact. Most of the loss is among courses for which the college doesn’t receive state funding.

“The declines are in courses that are self-supported, which means we don’t run them if the revenue isn’t there,” Olson said.

Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446; stevick@heraldnet.com.

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