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Community colleges see the need to ‘get very creative’ as enrollment keeps dropping

With enrollment down every year since 2010 overall in the community college system, the State Board of Community Colleges is mobilizing. The board set up an enrollment task force to study the issue and the system office launched a marketing campaign, while community college presidents around the state try to figure out what to do for their own colleges. 

Courtesy of the North Carolina Community College System

North Carolina has 58 community colleges, but if trends continue, that could change. Traditionally, community colleges do well in recession while enrollment slacks off in economic boom times. Walter Dalton, president of Isothermal Community College as well as the North Carolina Association of Community College Presidents, said the country is closer to the next recession. Meanwhile, right now, community colleges are needed to close the gap between high-tech employers who have jobs to fill and the untrained workers who may want them.

“It’s not only for North Carolina’s economy, it’s in regard to our national competitiveness,” Dalton said. “We’re the number one country and the number one economy in the world. We don’t stay that way if we don’t have the workforce to support the high tech jobs. So I think it’s critical that people come back to school.”

Dale McInnis, president of Richmond Community College, said his school has actually bucked the trend. This year, enrollment is flat, but that might be due to a cyber attack that interfered with enrollment. In prior years, the school has grown.

“We have grown at a time when that has not been the case for other rural colleges,” he said. 

And that took hard work, both in seeking out new students as well as retaining the ones the school has. So he said the enrollment trends can be reversed. He’s on the State Board of Community Colleges task force on enrollment.

Despite the positive trends for his college, McInnis recognizes declining enrollment is an issue as a whole for the system. And he said it is possible that if it’s not reversed, colleges might have to close down. 

“I think that is a reality we are all going to have to look at,” he said. “I think we are going to have to get very creative to escape the status quo.” 

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Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.