Dual Enrollment, Adult Learners Drive Enrollment Growth at Community Colleges in These States

Recent reports showed promising enrollment growth at community colleges in Illinois and North Carolina following pandemic declines.
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  • Adult learners and dual enrollment are driving growth at Illinois community colleges, according to a recent report.
  • In North Carolina, officials reported that an adult learner pilot program boosted enrollment.
  • The two reports are a bright spot for community colleges, which have seen enrollment declines accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated enrollment declines at community colleges, but recent reports found dual enrollment and adult learners drove promising increases at two-year schools in Illinois and North Carolina.

The studies of enrollment at community colleges, first reported by Community College Daily, found a boost in enrollment largely driven by adult learners in North Carolina and dual enrollment in Illinois.

Community colleges have increasingly looked to dual enrollment and boosting the number of adult learners to combat enrollment declines in recent years.

Dual Enrollment, Adult Learners Key to Illinois Community College Growth

Spring-to-spring enrollment at community colleges in Illinois increased by 7.2% between 2022 and 2023, according to a report from the Illinois Community College Board.

"Illinois community colleges continue to be positioned to meet regional and statewide

student and employer needs by providing high-quality, accessible, and cost-effective

educational opportunities, programs, and services for a diverse student population," the report reads.

"The substantial increase in enrollment for the Illinois Community College System represents a dramatic rebound in enrollment from the unprecedented declines due to the pandemic from Spring 2020 to Spring 2021."

The vast majority of the state's community colleges saw an increased headcount this spring compared to spring 2022, according to the report, while nine colleges saw a decline. Adult education saw a dramatic 29% headcount increase over the past year, according to the report, and dual enrollment saw a 10.4% increase.

Community colleges nationwide have looked to dual enrollment, which allows high school students to earn college credits, to cut back on enrollment drops. Those programs can increase student success and boost the likelihood of students pursuing postsecondary education, but they can at times be costly for community colleges, BestColleges previously reported.

Enrollment increased in both career and technical education and vocational skill training programs, according to the report.

Policymakers and business leaders alike have looked to community colleges to train skilled workers and cut back on a nationwide workforce shortage in recent years: In Ohio, for example, Intel partnered with community colleges to train workers for its $20 billion semiconductor plant northeast of Columbus, BestColleges previously reported.

Adult Learner Program Expansion Drives North Carolina Growth

The number of adult learners increased by 10% between 2020 and 2022 at North Carolina community colleges, according to a North Carolina Community Colleges System report.

That increase comes after North Carolina lawmakers spent $2 million to expand pilot programs for learners over the age of 25, according to the report. Workforce and continuing education saw a 19% increase between fall 2020 and fall 2022, and adult basic skills training increased by roughly 37% over that same period, according to the report.

While workforce development and skills training saw significant increases, enrollment in curriculum programs — which lead to associate degrees or transfer to four-year universities — saw a 10% decline during that same period, according to the report.

The report recommends that the state continue to invest in the successful adult learner pilot programs by boosting marketing efforts, shortening the time it takes to earn a degree, increasing data tracking, and expanding the statewide community college system's ability to help schools recruit and retain adult learners.

"Applied together, these strategies will help connect North Carolinians to educational programs

leading to in-demand jobs, speed their time to completion and (re)entry to the labor market, improve the state's ability to evaluate and improve programs, and provide the state's community colleges with consistent, research-based support for their adult learner recruitment and retention efforts," the report reads.