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In 2019, community colleges around the state saw their first large-scale growth systemwide after years of declining enrollment. A Senate committee moved forward a bill on Wednesday that would fund that growth for the community college system.

Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow and chair of the appropriations committee, said that many people are out of work due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the bill is essential to helping community colleges, which are responsible for training much of the state’s workforce.

“Any time unemployment takes off, enrollment at community colleges takes off,” he said.

The bill would have originally funded the enrollment growth with recurring state money, but an amendment added during the committee uses federal money sent to the state to battle COVID-19 instead. The bill that passed the committee appropriates $41.5 million in non-recurring funds.

From spring 2007 to spring 2019, community college enrollment statewide dropped by 2%. If you remove Wake Technical Community College — a college that largely bucked the trend — the drop grew to 6%.

A task force at the community college system was even formed to look at the reasons for the enrollment declines and how to combat it.

Enrollment at community colleges tends to increase during recessions and decrease during economic booms. During the last recession in 2008, the community college system saw a 28% spike in enrollment which peaked in 2010 before declines started rolling in.

But even prior to COVID-19 and the current recession, the community college system was seeing good omens.

In the fall of 2019, enrollment increased at 53 of the state’s 58 community colleges. Systemwide, enrollment at community colleges increased 4.4%. Workforce programs saw a 9.4% increase and curriculum programs a 3.8% boost.

“Community college enrollment grew last year for the first time in nearly a decade despite the then-expanding economy. If historical trends hold true during a recession, our enrollment should continue to grow this year,” North Carolina Community College System President Peter Hans said in an email. “As a result, the funds become critical for both budget stability and teaching capacity during this period of uncertainty. We certainly appreciate the recognition that community colleges are at the vanguard of the state’s economic recovery.”

State funding is the largest single source of funding for North Carolina’s community colleges, as EdNC explored in our community college funding series. Nearly 90% of state funding is distributed using a funding formula largely based on enrollment.

To calculate that funding, the legislature uses a funding-in-arrears model, which means that colleges receive state funding based on enrollment in previous years. Since 2013, the state has used colleges’ average enrollment over the previous two years to calculate the amount of funding they receive for the current year. This is unlike the K-12 school system, which receives state funding based on their current year’s enrollment.

One issue with this model is that it is not responsive to sudden changes in enrollment. When enrollment drops suddenly, colleges benefit because their state funding does not drop suddenly. On the other hand, when enrollment spikes suddenly, as it has in the past year, colleges do not see a corresponding increase in state funding immediately. That is why the community college system asked the state for additional funding for enrollment growth this year — because they were not going to receive it using the traditional funding formula. For more on the relationship between funding and enrollment at community colleges, check out these articles.

Behind the Story

Alex Granados provided reporting on the Senate committee. Molly Osborne provided reporting on the community college funding model.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.

Molly Osborne

Molly Osborne is the director of policy for EducationNC and the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.