It’s been a rough couple of years for Illinois community colleges, from the slashed funds of the budget impasse to concerning enrollment declines. This is part two in a three-part series on how these very different schools have stayed afloat by embracing change and, more importantly, putting the community in community college.
"The average student at Rock Valley is 24 to 25 years of age," said Doug Jensen, president of Rock Valley College. "She's female. They go to school part-time. She's a working adult, she may even be a working mom."
But there are fewer "average" students like her each year. Community college enrollment in both Illinois and throughout the United States has fallen in the last few years.
Illinois also has the second-highest rate of college-bound students leaving to go to college elsewhere.
Laurie Borowicz is the president of Kishwaukee College in Malta. Her own students transferring out-of-state tell her they're not fleeing because of the schools themselves.
"They do, they think Illinois has great institutions of higher education. They're just worried about the other parts of Illinois like the budget and public sentiment," said Dr. Borowicz.
Jerry Corcoran, president at Illinois Valley Community College, agrees the state's schools aren't the problem.
"Meanwhile, other schools in states contiguous to Illinois said, ‘Oh man, this is fertile ground -- They're having a hell of a time over there so we'll go recruit these students'," Corcoran paraphrases.
Some out-of-state universities have been offering more competitive prices, while Illinois universities and community colleges raise theirs.
But there's another part of the "perfect storm" of declining enrollment: "I've been in community college education for the last 20 years, and we always have an inverse relationship with the economy," said Dr. Borowicz.
During periods of low unemployment, working adults who would think about taking classes part-time are now more likely to work full-time instead.
Dr. Karen Hunter Anderson, executive director of the Illinois Community College Board, says those adult students are still community colleges' biggest opportunity in the future.
"We're encouraging all of our colleges to look at recruitment in some of the non-traditional areas, as opposed to the 18-year-old high school graduates," said Dr. Anderson. "Because that population looks like it's going to continue to decline."
Online classes are also an important tool to recruit a pool of new students. This past summer, for the first time ever, more credit hours were taken online at Kishwaukee than on-campus.
Students can also utilize Illinois Community Colleges Online, which allows them to take online courses offered at other community colleges if they're not available at their own.
At several community colleges in Illinois, you can get a fully-online associate degree without even stepping into a classroom. But it's not a fit for everyone.
For those students, the blended option has gotten more and more popular, where the classes are half online and half in-person. That's been the case at Waubonsee Community College, says Dr. Jamal Scott, the college's vice president of strategic development.
"So the idea of doing some of that online, but still have access to your professors, still have access to some of the resources, I think is something advantageous to them," said Dr. Scott.
Online classes may offer flexibility, but officials at Waubonsee say success rates are still higher for students who take in-person or blended classes.
Another way to recruit students is through dual credit programs, which offer the opportunity to collect college credits in high school.
Some schools offer incentives to those students. At Illinois Valley, for example, students who qualify for he state’s free/reduced lunch program, can enroll in dual-credit courses for a five dollar registration fee.
Supporters call it a win for students and community colleges: Dual-credit high school students jumpstart their degree and often continue their degrees at that community college.
However a student is recruited, community colleges hope a custom experience will keep them there.
And if they decide to transfer after they get their associate degree, the Illinois Articulation Initiative is able to make sure that your classes transfer to the school you want to move on to.
In fact, despite the state's higher-ed turmoil, Illinois community college students have the highest rate in the nation of Bachelor’s degree completion.