Sometimes, smaller is better

Community colleges play a vital role and serve as a barometer of economy

The news that enrollment at community colleges across Oregon has declined this fall offers some intriguing hints into the issues facing higher education in the state. It also could be another welcome sign that Oregon's economic recovery finally is picking up some steam.

Across the state, enrollment at Oregon's 17 community colleges this fall is down some 4.1 percent.

According to figures from the state Department of Community Colleges and Workforce Development, fall 2012 enrollment was 34,284 students. The number in fall 2011 was 35,749.

At Linn-Benton Community College, the story was about the same, as enrollment dropped some 5.5 percent. An unexpectedly large decline in full-time students led the way at LBCC.

Statewide, and at LBCC, the decline allows institutions a chance to catch their breath after a five-year explosion in enrollment. Across the state, enrollment at community colleges has boomed by 25 percent over the past five years, leading to a variety of capacity headaches at LBCC and on other community college campuses.

Community college officials attributed part of the decline to an improving economy; as jobs open up, potential students who had opted to attend college to brush up their resumes are electing instead to return to the workforce. Any way you slice it, that's good news.

The enrollment change also likely reflects a change in the way we're thinking about community colleges. Traditionally, these community colleges have been the orphans of our educational system, the last in line for funding.

Nowadays, we're starting to understand the important role these institutions play as we grapple with how we'll fulfill the 40-40-20 goal. That goal says that by 2025, 40 percent of Oregon adults will have at least a bachelor's degree, 40 percent will have an associate degree or similar certification and everyone will have at least a high school diploma or its equivalent.

The community colleges have a vital role to play in that middle 40 percent, and that has big implications for Oregon's workforce of the future.

To that end, LBCC and other community colleges are overhauling their programs to try to ensure that students wind up with that degree or certification. Certainly, there always will be a place at community colleges for students who dip in here and there for a quick dose of learning, but the primary goal will be to ensure students have a clearer road to completing their studies.

That's the reasoning behind an LBCC program like "Destination Graduation," which is mandatory this year for new students. One of the ideas behind the program is to connect students with advisers much earlier in the process so that they can chart out a path to completion.

All taken together, it starts to suggest a new way to judge the performance of our community colleges that goes well beyond just the raw enrollment numbers.

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