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Vocational programs are a rare bright spot as college enrollments keep falling

Photo by Scott Blake on Unsplash
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As the enrollment slide accelerates, vocational programs at community colleges post gains. Also, a Colorado university cuts tuition in career fields to attract students, and an Ohio college credentials staff in regional economics.


Career Education Discount

In a bid to encourage students to consider vocational education, Colorado Mesa University is slashing tuition in those programs by almost 40 percent.

Colleges tend to use standard tuition rates across their academic offerings. During the online pivot early in the pandemic, some students and their families argued that online programs should be priced more affordably than in-person ones. Yet most colleges held the line, while enrollments boomed at lower-priced online institutions.

A growing number of public colleges and universities have begun using differential tuition rates during the past decade. But institutions typically charge more for STEM and vocational tracks, citing a need to offset costs for programs that are more expensive to offer because of equipment, facilities, and higher faculty pay.

Higher tuition rates and a lack of clarity around pricing can discourage students from enrolling in these programs, research has found, particularly women and people of color. That’s problematic given labor-market demand and the relatively high ROI for graduates who major in career education and STEM fields. 

Colorado Mesa decided to buck this tradition with its new tuition cut. 

“What we’ve found is that a flat, university-level tuition rate for career and technical credentials has become a barrier for students and their families,” says John Marshall, the university’s president. “At the same time, local employers are in desperate need of skilled workers to fill jobs.”

The regional public university is based in Grand Junction and has three locations in western Colorado, enrolling roughly 10K students. It’s also one of about 400 dual-mission institutions in the U.S. These colleges combine community colleges with four-year universities, offering technical certificates, applied programs, and liberal arts degrees. It’s a promising model, particularly in a fast-changing economy.

Colorado Mesa’s community college division—Western Colorado Community College—is located a few miles away from the university’s main campus. It has been expanding career and technical offerings during the last five years, adding fire science, veterinary technology, pharmacy technician, aviation, viticulture, surveying, and gerontology. 

Enrollment is up at Western Colorado Community College, too, with a nearly 10 percent increase in credit hours taken since last spring. The most popular programs are manufacturing technology, emergency medical technician, and nurse aide.

Yet Marshall says state disinvestment has driven up tuition rates to $321 per credit hour, which is out of reach for many students who live in the state’s Grand Valley.

This week the university’s Board of Trustees voted to cut tuition rates across vocational programs to $197 per credit—reducing annual tuition and fees from $9,644 for Colorado residents who take 15 credits per semester to roughly $5,900 per year. That rate is in line with what two-year colleges in the state charge.

To cover the resulting multimillion-dollar revenue hit, the university is tapping a large donation from the estate of Tilman Bishop, a former Colorado state senator and CMU trustee.

CMU anticipates that the tuition cut will make career education more attractive to its students, more than half of whom are the first in their family to attend college.

Jared Polis, Colorado’s higher ed–wonk governor, a Democrat, spoke at CMU’s rollout event. He hopes other colleges will follow the university’s move to reduce tuition, particularly for in-demand fields.

“It will give more Coloradoans the skills they need for a good career,” Polis said.

The Association for Career and Technical Education was not aware of other colleges that charge less for vocational programs. Should they? And please send me examples if you know colleges that do.

Work Shift: Econ 101 for college staff members
Work Shift: Econ 101 for college staff members Lorain County Community College is credentialing advising and career staff in regional economics—to connect more students to in-demand jobs.

Enrollment Crisis Worsens

Vocational programs at community colleges were a rare bright spot in new, dismal numbers on U.S. college enrollments.

Declines have accelerated, with a 4.7 percent drop among undergraduates this spring compared to a year ago, when enrollment dipped by 3.1 percent, according to new data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Since the pandemic began, 1.4M fewer undergraduates attend U.S. colleges—a collapse of 9.4 percent. Community colleges continue to be hit hard, with 7.8 percent drop this spring. The sector is down 827K students over two years, currently standing at about 4.2M.

However, the center found that several career and technical education majors at community colleges had big enrollment increases:

  • Mechanic and repair technologies—11.5 percent
  • Personal and culinary services—12.7 percent
  • Construction trades—19.3 percent
  • Precision production—16.7 percent
  • Transportation and materials moving—28.9 percent

The enrollment spike in the construction trades recovered all the ground lost since the pandemic began. It was among a handful of community college majors to surpass that mark, including computer and information sciences, psychology, and legal professions and studies.

“There’s been a lot more interest in those areas because of the current conditions of the labor market,” Doug Shapiro, the center’s executive director, says of the skilled trades.

He says the worsening overall enrollment decline suggests a sustained shift among Americans on higher education.

The Kicker: “This is really part of a larger phenomenon and a larger set of questions—not just about the value, but the purpose of college,” says Shapiro.

College enrollment slide worsens
College enrollment slide worsens Undergraduate enrollment dropped this spring at a faster rate than in the fall—with community colleges continuing to see the biggest decline.

Rethinking Majors

More than half of Americans who attended college say the lifetime financial benefits of their higher education exceeded the monetary cost. That assessment hasn’t changed much during the decade that the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System has conducted an annual national survey of household economics and decision making.

However, the fall 2021 survey found that those who held outstanding student loan debt were less positive, with 40 percent saying the benefits of their education outweigh the costs.

When asked to reassess their college decisions, 38 percent of respondents said they would now choose a different field of study, including 43 percent among those who attended some college but did not earn a degree, 31 percent of those who earned an associate degree, and 37 percent of those who earned a bachelor’s.

Respondents who majored in the humanities or arts were most likely to say they would choose a different path (48 percent), followed by the social and behavioral sciences (46 percent), undeclared students (44 percent), and vocational and technical training (42 percent).

Those who majored in engineering (24 percent), computer and information sciences (32 percent), and health (33 percent) were least likely to say they would now choose a different field of study.

Source: Federal Reserve Board

Open Tabs

Correction: My recent article on hybrid colleges garbled a data point from AdvanceEDU. The Denver-based hybrid college support organization aims to serve 10K students during the next decade. Also, PelotonU updated a program completion figure, noting that its students on average earn their first credential (either an associate or bachelor’s degree) within 1.3 years.

Professional Certifications

Apple has added new online courses and certifications for IT support and management. The online courses are self-paced, with certification exams costing $149. Apple also said it is partnering with community colleges and four-year universities to offer on-campus prep courses for its certified IT professional badge. The company offers scholarships to cover exam costs at some community colleges.

Enrollment Crisis

The college-going rate for Tennessee students who graduated high school last year was 53 percent, a decline of four percentage points from the previous year and more than 11 percentage points since 2015, according to a new report from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. The biggest decline last year was among Latina students, followed by white and Black women students.

Nursing Shortages

Government and employers should invest in helping nurses who hold an associate degree in nursing to earn a bachelor of science in nursing, according to a report from the Center for American Progress on severe U.S. nursing shortages. Apprenticeships and B.S.N. programs at community colleges can help, as can state-level nursing workforce organizations.

Hiring Pipeline

Walmart is piloting a hiring program aimed at college students and recent graduates. The new College2Career offers classroom training, work experience, and mentoring, with top performers being offered a starting wage of at least $65K for a newly created management role that can lead to store manager jobs. The company also is expanding its home office internship program by almost 30 percent.

Learner Records

A new paper from the Brookings Institution provides a high-level map of education and hiring technologies, with an emphasis on digital credentials and learning and employment records (LERs). Little is known about the long-term effectiveness of digital microcredentials, concludes the report, which calls for governance frameworks that support equal access, reduce confusion, and protect against exploitation.

Curricular Maps

A recently formed partnership between the Columbus City Schools, Columbus State Community College, and Ohio State University seeks to prepare students for careers in science, technology, engineering, arts, math, and medicine, while also driving more diversity in those fields. The five-year project will include the development of curricular maps and assessments across the three education partners.

Career Scholarships

Scholarship programs for alumni of the KIPP charter schools include access to mentors as well as career, internship, and networking services, in addition to up to $60K in funding. Roughly 200 students have received the scholarships, which seek to help them persist in college while also building a network before they complete so graduates can land strong first jobs.

Accelerated Degrees

A new program from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation aims to give high school students a chance to take an additional year of courses so they earn enough college credits to complete an associate degree one year after high school, while also gaining career preparation. The 12 teams that receive the $175K grants will offer the programs at low or no cost.

Geographic Preferences

Texas, New York, Florida, and California are the top preferred destinations for high school and college students, according to the Tallo platform, with Texas seeing a potential 20 percent increase in Gen Z staying in or moving to the state over the next three years. Yet, in a shift, more young people are interested in living in some smaller states, including Nebraska, South Dakota, Alaska, and Arizona.

I’ve been meaning to write about reader suggestions on guardrails for short-term Pell Grants, but stuff keeps happening on the beat. Send your ideas my way? Catch you next week. —@paulfain

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