Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Community colleges aim to reverse enrollment slide

The pivotal role of community colleges in our state’s economy is a recurring theme among N.C. leaders, especially given the dearth of qualified workers in the building trades, health care and technology.

So it’s distressing to learn of the negative enrollment trends at the state’s community colleges: The 58 campuses reported a 5% drop in headcount among curriculum program students in Fall 2020 versus a year earlier, while workforce training and basic skills enrollment declined by a combined 17%, according to system President Thomas Stith.
The falloff was much more pronounced among male students than female ones. And some of the biggest declines involve construction, engineering and industrial technologies programs  — just the sectors that may offer the most promising career opportunities in this economy.

Statewide data for spring 2021 hasn’t been reported, but Charlotte’s Central Piedmont Community College reported a 13% decline in that period. (It’s the second-largest N.C. community college behind Wake Tech.) That’s in-line with state and national trends, spokesperson Jeff Lowrance says. Moreover, fall 2021 enrollment is down more than 20% versus the same time last year, he says

Times of economic stress usually prompt surges in enrollment at community colleges. The pandemic proved very different as the switch to in-person instruction and other factors sparked a downturn. In contrast, enrollment at the 16-campus UNC System showed modest gains in the 2020-21 school year. Jobs in both skilled and unskilled sectors are plentiful in North Carolina right now, which may be prompting potential students from signing up for classes.

The trend at community colleges is alarming for a state that is pushing hard to boost the number of adults with completed degrees and certifications by 2 million by 2030. Earlier this year, Cecilia Holden, CEO of the myFutureNC program, told the EdNC newsletter, “With 72,500 fewer students enrolled in our community colleges, we are going to have to see significant increases in years to follow or this year’s declines will translate into fewer graduates with the credentials or degrees needed, further widening the gap that previously existed.”

In response, state and local officials are hustling to attract more students. Governor Roy Cooper pledged $31.5 million of federal stimulus money to provide recent high school graduates from $700 to $2,800 per year for two years to attend an N.C. community college. The Longleaf Commitment program should make attending the colleges tuition-free for most students.

“The Longleaf Commitment grant program and the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund provides financial support that will help increase enrollment in North Carolina’s great 58 community colleges,” says Thomas Stith, the system’s president.

CPCC is offering more class sections, more four- and eight-week classes, boosting marketing for both recent high school graduates and adult learners and contacting those who have “stopped-out” before completing degrees, Lowrance says.

Fewer community college students can lead to financial difficulties because the state ties funding to the previous year’s enrollment, Lowrance notes. The system is pushing for “stability funding” in the budget being debated at the N.C. General Assembly, hoping to stem some pressure caused by the pandemic, he says.

The community colleges also want raises for their faculty and staff included in the budget. They haven’t gotten any bumps since 2018, Lowrance says.


David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg
David Mildenberg is editor of Business North Carolina. Reach him at

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