Like most two-year colleges, Clark College is subject to fluctuations in the economy.
When the national and regional economy is weak, as during the Great Recession of a decade ago, enrollment is robust; fewer jobs are available, leaving more potential students seeking education or training. But when the economy is strong, more would-be students enter the market to seize available jobs.
Therefore, shrinking enrollment is actually a good sign. Such is the case at Clark College, where enrollment of full-time equivalent students — those taking an average of 15 credit hours in a quarter — dropped from 11,462 during the 2011-12 school year to 8,971 for the 2017-18 academic year. “I think certainly when the economy is down, we get people going back to school because they’re unemployed,” explained Scott Bailey, regional economist with the state Employment Security Department and an instructor at Clark.
Community college administrators are accustomed to the adjustments required by economic twists and turns. But as Clark officials prepare to make about $3 million in budget cuts for the 2019-20 school year, they also should plan for the future. So should lawmakers in Olympia.
That is because changes are coming for community and technical colleges. “They absolutely need to be worried right now,” said Christina Hubbard, an education researcher, for an article by “Inside Higher Ed” in June 2018. “We’re in an OK spot until 2025, and then a cliff is going to happen.”
One factor nationally is that the number of high school graduates is expected to decline beginning in 2025 because birth rates were lower during the recession. That might be offset in Washington because the state annually has positive net migration — more people move here than move away. Enrollment in Vancouver Public Schools and Evergreen Public Schools — Clark County’s largest districts — has been remarkably stable over the past five years.
Another factor for Washington’s 34-school community and technical college system is funding. As the Legislature made necessary cuts during the recession and then focused on funding for K-12 education, community colleges often were a budgetary afterthought.
The Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges requested an additional $189 million from the state operating budget that is being hammered out for the 2019-21 biennium. The focuses of the request are faculty pay raises to bring the schools in line with K-12 public schools; expansion of the Guided Pathways student support program; and 5,000 more student slots in high-demand fields such as nursing, computer science and advanced manufacturing.
As Jan Yoshiwara, the board’s executive director, told The Seattle Times: “I think about it as putting more money into Washingtonians. What people want is to have a good job and to be able to launch themselves into a career pathway that will enable them to support themselves and their families.”
Community colleges play an essential role in the state’s ability to fulfill those desires. Post-secondary training is increasingly important for creating the workers of the future, but that doesn’t always mean a four-year degree program. The key is for community colleges to remain flexible in their curriculum to meet the demand of the moment — and for legislators to foresee the needs of the colleges.
Ideally, the economy will remain strong and keep enrollment relatively low at Washington’s community colleges. But those colleges will continue to be important to the future of the state.