In 2020, during the worse days of the COVID-19 Pandemic, many of us were concerned about a sluggish economic recovery or even a recession. To date, we are fortunate that the initial recovery has been robust. We are grateful to see our friends and neighbors return to work and are relieved to see the help wanted signs. I’m an optimist. Sometimes however, there is a cloud that accompanies the silver lining.
The better jobs that lead to a family sustaining income usually require at least one or two years of relevant post-secondary workforce education. My experience has been that the career skills that bring a family sustaining income are most often taught at technical colleges. The Technical College System of Georgia and Albany Technical College have the infrastructure and faculty to do our part. But, will colleges have enough students? If not, how will we address the shortfall?
According to National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, college enrollment declined by 16.1% during the COVID pandemic. The same research indicates that two-year college enrollments declined by 22.7%. Two-year college enrollments declined at a rate three times higher than their pre COVID-19 decline in enrollment. Spring semester 2021 saw a decline in college enrollment of 603,000 individuals. Approximately 362,000 were two year college students.
Four year colleges enroll 71.1% of undergraduate students. While, the average four year college student is 26 years old, the next largest age group of those students fall between the ages of 18 and 22 years old. Most four year college students are unmarried and have few family responsibilities. Albany Technical College’s students average 29 years old, with a smaller percentage of the population being between the traditional ages of 18 -22. Most are female and many have family obligations. Few attend college for the social experiences. They enroll to obtain the skill sets that are needed to create an affluent life style for their families.
The COVID-19 pandemic was obviously the catalyst for accelerating the decline in enrollment for all college students. The solutions for increasing matriculation at technical colleges must address the age, gender, educational levels at initial enrollment, economic circumstance, and family responsibilities of prospective students.
The problem properly stated is that we do not graduate enough skilled technicians to solve industry needs. Attracting students to programs that have critical workforce shortages is more important than just increasing overall enrollment. Enrollments must match critical industry needs. Retention is at least as important as recruitment. One solution will not solve every problem. There is no magic bullet or secrete sauce. Each solution should take into account industry needs and the corresponding gap in worker capabilities in relevant employment taxonomies. A holistic community approach should be implemented to make it likely that the number of educated technicians will increase. Industry should be involved in attracting students that will address their specific shortages. Anything less would jeopardize our robust post pandemic recovery.