According to the Fall Current Term Enrollment Estimates from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, enrollments at two-year public institutions were 5,906,419 in fall 2015, a drop of 145,000 enrollments from 6,052,069 in fall 2014. And the community college enrollment decline is 423,000 from 6,329,631 fall 2013. Students over the age of 24 accounted for 89 percent of this decline.
So, what can entrepreneurial community college leaders do to convince people who are often referred to as “nontraditional students” to consider enrolling in fall 2016? Well, according to American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), the average age of a community college student is 29. So, maybe we’ll be more success if we stop using outdated, old-fashioned, and off-putting terms like “nontraditional.” It’s much harder to recruit more students over the age of 24 if you call them a name that implies that they aren’t “traditional” or “customary” and won’t be “welcomed” or “accepted” at your community college.
Next, we need to build a stronger case for why people over the age of 24 would want to enroll at a community college. Yes, we’re cheaper than the competition. According to the AACC, the average annual tuition and fees for 2015-2016 are only $3,430 at community colleges (public, in district), which is significantly less than the $9,410 for 4-year colleges (public, in state). But, we also need to emphasize the rising cost of not going to college if we want to convince adults over the age of 24 to make any investment in higher education at all.
That’s why I recommend reading a recent post by Anna Brown, a research assistant focusing on Hispanic, social, and demographic trends at the Pew Research Center. Her post is entitled, “What Americans say it takes to be middle class.”
Brown kicks off her post by asking a question that rarely gets asked anymore, “What does it take to be considered part of the middle class these days?” And she answers it by revealing, “The vast majority of American adults agree that a secure job and the ability to save money for the future are essential. The public is more evenly split when it comes to owning a home and having the time and money to travel for vacation. But one thing is now less likely to be seen as a requirement: a college education.”
According to Brown, the economic gap between college graduates and those with a high school education or less has never been greater, but the share of adults saying a college education is necessary to be middle class has actually fallen since 2012, from 37% to 30%, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted Dec. 8-13, 2015.
There is a wide gap between men and women when it comes to answering this question. Although 35% of women say that a college education is needed to be in the middle class, only 26% of men say the same. Millennial women outpace Millennial men in educational attainment, and indeed the gap in opinion is wider between women and men who are ages 18 to 49 than among those ages 50 and older.
There is virtually no difference by age or education level in views about whether a college education is necessary to be middle class. This reflects a sharp drop since 2012 in the shares of the youngest and least educated adults who said a college education was necessary. In 2012, 43% of 18- to 29-year-olds and 41% of those without a college degree said a college education was necessary to be middle class; today roughly three-in-ten of both groups do.
The value individuals place on a college degree differs significantly by income. Among those with an annual household income of less than $30,000, 40% say a college degree is necessary to be in the middle class, compared with 26% of those who make $30,000 to $74,999 and 22% of those who make $75,000 or more. This has changed little since 2012.
A college education’s perceived importance in being part of the middle class also differs by what social class people feel they are part of now. Those who consider themselves part of the lower and lower-middle classes are more likely than those in the middle or upper-middle/upper classes to say a college education is key to being middle class.
Now, the concept of a “middle class” can be measured in different ways. For example, when looking at economic measurements, researchers often group people by household income, defining the middle class as households with an income that is between 67% and 200% of the overall median household income, adjusted for household size. However, surveys by the Pew Research Center ask respondents which of the commonly used names for the social classes – upper, upper-middle, middle, lower-middle or lower – they would say they belong in.
So, we have our work cut out for us if we are going to convince more American adults that a college education is as essential as a secure job and the ability to save money for the future in order to be considered part of the middle class. Fortunately, the Pew Research Center also provides data on the rising cost of not going to college.
The data is from February 2014, so some of it is out-of-date. But, for those who question the value of college in this era of soaring student debt, it’s worth noting that young college graduates are outperforming their peers with less education on virtually every measure of economic well-being and career attainment—from personal earnings to job satisfaction to the share employed full time.
The Pew Research analysis of economic data from the U.S. Census Bureau found that Millennial college graduates ages 25 to 32 who were working full time earned more annually—about $17,500 more—than employed young adults holding only a high school diploma. College-educated Millennials also were more likely to be employed full time than their less-educated counterparts (89% vs. 82%) and significantly less likely to be unemployed (3.8% vs. 12.2%).
According to the Pew Research Center, employed Millennial college graduates were more likely than their peers with a high school diploma or less education to say their job is a career or a steppingstone to a career (86% vs. 57%). In contrast, Millennials with a high school diploma or less were about three times as likely as college graduates to say their work is “just a job to get [them] by” (42% vs. 14%).
The Pew survey also found that among employed Millennials, college graduates were significantly more likely than those without any college experience to say that their education has been “very useful” in preparing them for work and a career (46% vs. 31%). And these better educated young adults are more likely to say they have the necessary education and training to advance in their careers (63% vs. 41%).
But did these benefits outweigh the financial burden imposed by four or more years of college? Among Millennials ages 25 to 32, the answer was clearly yes: About nine-in-ten with at least a bachelor’s degree said college had already paid off (72%) or would pay off in the future (17%). Even among the two-thirds of college-educated Millennials who borrowed money to pay for their schooling, about nine-in-ten (86%) said their degrees had been worth it or expected that they would be in the future.
Of course, the economic and career benefits of a college degree are not limited to Millennials. Overall, the survey and economic analysis consistently found that college graduates regardless of generation were doing better than those with less education.
And that’s a message that The Advocate of Affordable College urges entrepreneurial community college leaders to incorporate into their marketing and communications campaigns that target students over the age of 24. We need to convince more adults to make an investment in higher education. And there’s no better (or cheaper) place to start than by enrolling in your community college this fall.
(Greg Jarboe is the editor of The Advocate of Affordable College blog and the former editor of the Knowledge Transfer blog. He’s also the president and co-founder of SEO-PR, an instructor at the Rutgers Business School, the content marketing faculty chair at Market Motive, as well as the author of YouTube and Video Marketing: An Hour a Day.)