The enrollment decline at Oklahoma's community colleges mirrors a national trend. Norma Kent, a spokeswoman for the American Association of Community Colleges, said an inverse relationship exists between community college enrollment and the economy overall — when economic conditions are poor, enrollment goes up.
In a poor economy, people go back to school for additional training or to change careers, she said. That's especially true of people who are unemployed, she said, since they often see college as a way to get back to work.
But as the recovery begins to take hold, she said, more of those students are finding work, meaning they're less interested in attending community colleges.
The picture isn't without bright spots, however. Both Western Oklahoma State College and the Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology expect to see enrollment growth. OSUIT is projecting 2.4 percent growth, and Western Oklahoma State College expects a 2.9 percent increase.
Ina Agnew, OSUIT's vice president of student services, said she had been unsure about how the school's enrollment numbers would fare following changes to the federal financial aid system.
Beginning with the 2012-13 academic year, students were required to have a high school diploma or a GED to qualify for federal financial aid, including Pell Grants. While the change had minimal impact at four-year colleges and universities, community colleges have expressed concern about how the change would affect their students.
About 30 percent of OSUIT's students don't have a high school diploma or GED, Agnew said. Those students generally graduate at the same rate as students with diplomas, she said, but the change puts federal financial aid off limits to those students.
Agnew said she thinks the enrollment growth came as a result of practical decisions students made about their education. OSUIT's programs feed into industries in Oklahoma, making the school a good bet for students looking to start their careers.
“I believe they're looking at the bottom line — what is the purpose of pursuing this college degree?” she said.