Dr. Robert L. Breude
Dr. Robert L. Breude
While most news reports may lead us to believe the unemployment rate is improving, turning our attention to the fine print gives us a better understanding of the challenges colleges face as our economy continues to struggle.

The federal government reports only a portion of the overall unemployment picture. Reports may state the rate is currently 6.6 percent, but the reality is far worse than that — hovering closer to 17 percent, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The discrepancy comes in large part from the number of unemployed individuals who have fallen off the grid and have either given up or who have taken part-time work, essentially abandoning their full-time job search.

Another recent example in a CNN Money article reported that as of January 2014, 3.6 million people were unemployed six months or longer. Those individuals represented 36 percent of the unemployed and another 7 million were classified as “part-time for economic reasons.”

Many individuals were impacted at the recession’s onset. Jobs were lost. Businesses closed. And initially, many community colleges reported huge enrollment boosts, as unemployed and underemployed individuals flocked back to school in search of new careers or to improve their skills.

As the recession continued, however, it appeared those same students who entered college seeking to improve or revitalize their skill sets had to forego their educational goals in order to stay afloat financially. In addition, many first-time students postponed college and opted to enter into the workforce. A recent article in Community College Daily noted that declines in college enrollment over the past two years seem to support the theory that when the economy improves, nontraditional students (age 24 and older) tend to favor jobs over going to college.

What, then, does all this mean for the future of higher education and community colleges in particular?

The current economy presents unique competitive challenges as we jockey for a shrinking pool of students. As such, it has become more essential than ever to listen to the marketplace and develop innovative programs that respond to the needs of the workplace. Most recently, College of DuPage has partnered with five universities to offer 12 baccalaureate degrees entirely on our campus at a significantly reduced tuition rate. Students participating in any of these 3+1 programs can earn a baccalaureate degree for a total cost of less than $34,000.

While I don’t have a crystal ball in hand, I’m assuming the current momentum toward two-year schools offering baccalaureate degrees will only become stronger over the next few years. In less than a decade, 22 states have agreed to allow their community colleges to offer bachelor’s degrees in applied technical fields where a four-year degree is needed. Statistics show that keeping students on the same campus for four years has a positive effect on completions. In turn, this means the deployment of more skilled workers to fill employment gaps in high-growth technical areas such as nursing, manufacturing, industrial management, computer information systems and related fields.

The bottom line is that higher education should not participate in the economic “blame game” when it comes to rising or falling enrollments. The economy is just one of many factors that impact a student’s decision to attend a college or university. The ability to keep enrollment on the upswing rests entirely upon the shoulders of each individual institution.

More than ever before, colleges must provide a product that results in a tangible reward for its students upon graduation. There must be a positive ROI at the end of the educational journey that results in both a diploma and a paycheck in each student’s hand. More than any other form of higher education, community colleges have the flexibility and capability of providing opportunities for students that are relevant and real in today’s marketplace. We are continually changing and reacting to a dynamic environment, creating programs that provide training and skills that are needed now and result in jobs today.

In fact, it is my belief that community colleges are the answer to the labor crisis in this country.

Colleges that don’t make tough decisions — and keep tired, irrelevant programs in their curriculum — are in fact contributing to this country’s economic crisis as their students enthusiastically walk across the stage in their cap and gown only to eventually become a jobless statistic.  

A flat economy or a recession that blankets the nation doesn’t mean we can just throw up our hands, spin our wheels, and say “there’s nothing we can do.” College of DuPage is the only community college district in the state of Illinois to experience an increase in full-time equivalent enrollment this spring. Yet we are not resting on our laurels. Instead, we continue to proactively uncover new opportunities for our students and have the courage to recognize and remove out-of-date programs, replacing them with a degree that results in a positive future and a fiscally rewarding career.

In closing, College of DuPage recently conducted extensive research as part of our new branding campaign. One of the most significant findings came through when we asked prospects what they considered “least appealing” about COD. The answer was simply that we are a two-year school. This doesn’t mean we plan to convert to a four-year institution — it just means that our product line must provide additional opportunities for our students so they leave here with a diploma and training that is in absolutely in-sync with market expectations.  

• Dr. Robert L. Breuder is president of the College of DuPage.