As Community College Enrollments Plunge, Legislators To Approve Expansion

At the same time enrollment at community colleges is plunging across the country, Arizona legislators are expected to vote on a bill that would allow the colleges to offer four-year baccalaureate degrees.

The struggling colleges hope Rep. Becky Nutt’s bill, HB2523, will reverse the staggering decline.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse, community colleges were hit the hardest for enrollment among all types of colleges:

Overall postsecondary enrollments declined 2.5 percent in fall 2020, nearly twice the rate of enrollment decline reported in fall 2019. Undergraduate enrollment was the primary driver for this decline, decreasing 3.6 percent or over 560,200 students from 2019.

Most notable is the public two-year sector, which suffered the most from enrollment decline this fall while all other major institutional sectors had more positive enrollment outcomes than they did last fall. Public college enrollment (two-year and four-year combined), which enrolls 7 out of 10 postsecondary students, declined by 4 percent or nearly 530,000 students this fall, mainly due to decreases at public two-year institutions.

A 13.1 percent drop in freshman enrollment (or over 327,500 students) from last fall is unprecedented. Sharp declines at public two-year institutions (over 207,200 students, 21% decrease) contributed the most to the decline, falling at a rate almost 20 times higher than the prior year’s decline (pre-pandemic).

Educators are split on the subject. According to the entries in the Arizona Legislature’s Request To Speak (RTS) system, the bill’s primary support comes from college administrators and the various faculty unions.

Dr. Sylvia Lee, former campus president at both Pima Community College’s Northwest and Community campuses, says she supports the expansion “as long as the baccalaureate degrees are workforce not liberal arts.”

In its current form, Nutt’s bill does not restrict the four-year baccalaureate degrees’ fields of study to those related to the workforce.

According to the Arizona House Overview, HB2523 directs a community college district board, when approving a baccalaureate program, to make its determination based on:

a) Whether the community college can demonstrate workforce need and student demand for the program;

b) A financial analysis showing the short-term and long-term impacts to initiate and sustain the program, including the sources of money, facilities requirements, faculty, personnel and administrative costs;

c) Whether the program would unnecessarily duplicate programs offered by other Arizona higher education institutions; and

d) The ability of the community college to support the program with student enrollment and the adequacy of facilities, faculty, administration, libraries and other resources. (Sec. 3)

Despite the fact that we have a skilled trade shortage in both urban and rural communities, community college students are primarily enrolled as liberal arts majors:

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