Seven Year Slide

As unemployment falls, so does college enrollment

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Illustration by Quentin J. Piccolo
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According to the official budget approved and adopted by the Lane Community College Board of Education, approximately 8,200 students are enrolled in Fall Term classes, an 11 percent drop from the previous year. This is cause for concern for the college since continuing enrollment woes signal a decline in state and federal funding.

Enrollment has dropped every year since the peak of the Great Recession in 2011, when over 15,000 students took classes at LCC. Historically, college enrollment rises during periods of economic upheaval and higher unemployment. As the national unemployment rate approached 10 percent in 2010 and 2011, people flocked to community colleges to learn new skills and find new careers. This was a boon for state and federal funding for colleges, but as those students earned degrees and rejoined the workforce, the money slowly began to disappear.

“…I’m just worried they’ll start to raise my tuition more and more to make up for it.”

– Derek mooney, LCC student

The 11 percent drop in enrollment is the greatest decline among Oregon community colleges, according to LCC’s budget and data obtained from Oregon’s 16 other colleges. Though the college has yet to make any hard decisions about cutting services this year, second-year mathematics transfer student Derek Mooney has his own ideas.

“My classes feel smaller, the line for coffee is shorter, everything feels less crowded on campus,” Mooney said. “I can already see it happening. It’s not necessarily a bad thing right now. I’m just worried they’ll start to raise my tuition more and more to make up for it.”

In Oregon, state funding for public higher education institutions is set every two years by the Department of Community Colleges and Workforce Development and divided between the state’s 17 community colleges. Additional funding is levied through property taxes in each college’s respective district. Most of the remaining money is raised through tuition, fees and private donations. How much state and tax money each college receives is based in part on enrollment numbers, which can put pressure on smaller community colleges in rural areas. Most of the remaining money is raised through student tuition, fees and private donations.

Many of Oregon’s community colleges have been forced to raise tuition to help make ends meet – this spring, Lane’s board approved a tuition increase for the sixth straight year. Oregon residents now pay $113.50 per credit hour to attend classes, up from $90 in 2012. But even though the price of classes has gone up, students like Julia Crenshaw – who is attending college for the first time – are cautiously optimistic.

“I’d rather pay a little bit more now if it means everything else stays the same and no one loses their jobs,” Crenshaw said. “And it’s still cheaper to go here than Portland [State University] or [University of] Oregon, so what’s a few dollars more if I still get to be a lawyer after I’m done?”

Despite the steadily increasing concern about funding, LCC is also investing $2.5 million into its infrastructure, including several improvements mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act and a roof replacement for Building 16.

In the past several years, LCC has been forced to cut or restructure certain degree programs to save money. In 2017 alone, the Watershed Technician Program and Sustainability Coordinator programs were nixed, along with several social science and humanities courses, due to low enrollment.

Though LCC has taken steps to encourage new enrollment and retain existing students, Vice President of Student Affairs Brian Kelley cautioned members of the budget committee in May that the college may be forced to borrow money “as soon as [fiscal year 20]20” if the current trend continues.