WASHINGTON – At the peak of the 2008 recession, when layoffs became all too common, many people turned to an alternative to job-hunting — enrolling at their local colleges.
But over the last two years, as the economy has begun to improve, fewer adults are returning to school and enrollment at community colleges and other institutions has declined dramatically.
Take, for instance, enrollment at Maryland’s 16 community colleges.
Enrollment surged at the peak of the recession, increasing 9.3 percent from 128,093 to 140,031 between 2008 and 2009.
But between 2012 and 2013, the number of students at community colleges dropped 3.9 percent from 144,880 to 139,198.
Alex Rosaen, director of public policy and economic analysis at Anderson Economic Group, a research and consulting firm, said people weigh the costs and benefits of returning to school.
“One thing we observed is just that through the recession there was just a continuous increase in enrollment,” he said.
For the unemployed and those fearing layoffs during the recession, returning to school seemed like a viable option that would provide opportunities for work, job security and advancement.
However, the recovering economy has caused a drop in the unemployment rate, more job openings and flatter adult enrollment, Rosaen added.
“As we’ve started the recovery, such as it is, we’re not in a boom time, but things are not getting worse,” he said.
In 2008, people faced more competition per job opening, of which there were few, he said.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Job Openings and Turnover Survey reported that U.S. work vacancies rose 30.3 percent — an increase of 925,000 — from December 2008 to January 2014.
The overall recovery since 2008 appears to explain the change in the enrollment trend.
“In general, it’s a very common cycle that when unemployment increases so does enrollment,” said Cathy Sandeen, vice president for education attainment and innovation at the American Council on Education.
Sandeen has also noticed a greater interest in certification programs and more people studying online, as well as students entering growing fields.
“You know, we do tend to see student enrollment in programs where there is employment growth or projected employment growth,” such as security, technology and healthcare, she said.
While nontraditional students consist of a wide range of ages and backgrounds, the reason for enrollment has tended to remain consistent since 2008 — the weak economy.
Melissa Antonio, a nontraditional student at the Community College of Baltimore County, enrolled as the economy began to recover.
She never thought much about continuing her education after high school and entered the workforce, holding several long-term positions, mostly involving office work.
Then in June, the 34-year-old lost her job and decided to pursue a career in nursing.
Antonio’s story is still a common one in an economy with 10.5 million out of work, although the number of people going back to school has slowed.
Other Maryland higher education institutions have also felt the change in adult enrollment.
Bernard Sadusky, executive director at the Maryland Association of Community Colleges, which represents the state’s community colleges, explained the adult enrollment trend as an inverse relationship.
“There seems to be an inverse effect from a decline in the economy and folks returning back to community colleges,” he said, identifying certification and new skill attainment as reasons for adult enrollment.
Sadusky said that Maryland has more than 100,000 job vacancies and many nontraditional students want to pursue careers in cybersecurity, an emerging field in the metropolitan area.
The University of Maryland University College launched its cybersecurity program in 2010 and enrollment has risen from about 1,000 in 2011 to more than 5,000 currently, said Robert Ludwig, assistant vice president for media relations at UMUC.
But like other schools, UMUC faces an overall drop in enrollment.
UMUC had an increase in enrollment by 6.3 percent from 87,645 to 93,193 between 2008 and 2013. However, the main jump in registration occurred between 2009 and 2012, after which enrollment decreased 3.9 percent.
“I think we’re seeing a demographic shift,” Ludwig said about adult enrollment. “I think we’re seeing enrollment rates soften a bit and we’ll see where that’s going in the next few years.”