The number of students graduating from Alabama high schools and entering state universities and colleges dipped by 5% in 2020 to 41%.
While that decrease can in part be blamed on COVID-19-caused disruptions, it’s also part of a larger decline that education officials say is a sign of a strong economy. In 2011, 53% of high school graduates went directly to in-state colleges.
“I think it mostly can be attributed since 2011 to an improvement in the economy,” Jim Purcell, executive director of the Alabama Commission on Higher Education, said. Post-Great Recession, more jobs have been available to people right out of high school.
But as the state works to find more skilled workers, higher education leaders are trying new ways to reach them. Purcell said that as people’s careers advance or manufacturing jobs become more automated, training and courses are available.
“Higher ed will be there for them,” he said.
The decline in home-grown students is most noticeable at the state’s community colleges. Historically, community college enrollments dip along with unemployment rates. They rise when more people are out of work.
Systemwide, community college enrollment declined 11% in fall 2020 and is down 13% in the last five years. At the state’s 14 four-year colleges, enrollment was up 0.4% last fall and is up 5.9% compared to five years ago.
Part of four-year’s enrollment increase is out-of-state students. Over the last five years, the number of Alabama-native students at colleges and universities decreased 6.3% while the number of students not from Alabama grew 18.1%, according to ACHE.
Enrollment numbers for the semester beginning this month aren’t yet available. And Purcell said it’s too soon to know what the post-COVID economy might mean for enrollment trends. But the state’s increasing need for trained workers, including those in manufacturing, is something state leaders are trying to address through a goal of 500,000 newly certified workers by 2025.
The Alabama Community College System’s enrollment data doesn’t yet distinguish between students enrolled in associate degree programs or who may go on to four-year schools and those enrolled in short-term certificate programs. The ACCS awarded 47,695 credentials last year.
“Automation is a big change agent for the economy,” Purcell said. “We believe that there’ll be more pressure for people coming out of high school to have some kind of credential, either an industry credential or a college credential to help them become more marketable.”
A spokeswoman for Gov. Kay Ivey said the state is working to develop competency-based education and workforce training programs “that will permit more Alabamians to access the modes of training that meets their immediate employability needs and provides stackability to a long-term education and career pathway.”
Purcell said independent and private college enrollment has stayed relatively steady in recent years, meaning more students aren’t opting for them over the state’s public schools. Meanwhile, there haven’t been significant changes in the low percentages of students going out of state for college.
COVID dip and ‘summer melt’
That COVID-19 related dip mirrored national trends, Purcell said. Those can be attributed to the financial impact that many families faced as a result of the pandemic.
Even prior to the pandemic, ACCS was targeting “summer melt,” when prospective students make plans to attend college, but never show up in the fall.
Twelve ACCS colleges are running text campaigns specifically targeted to students who apply in spring but “melt away” from the application pool by fall, system spokeswoman Rachel Bunning told Alabama Daily News. The campaign is built to encourage specific actions such as completing federal student aid applications, attending orientation and completing registration.
Other ACCS efforts to attract and retain students include:
- Outcome-based funding rewards for colleges that reach non-traditional student populations;
- More grant-funded efforts focused specifically on recruiting non-traditional populations including veterans, military spouses and students who have been in the criminal justice system.
These programs, also assisted with support services such as childcare, are to help mitigate barriers to attending college, Bunning said.
Purcell said Alabama institutions are used for marketing to adult student populations, but since COVID are now making efforts to reach potential students. Last year, colleges’ high school visits to meet potential students were halted. The commission launched an online survey for prospective students that asks many of the same questions they’d be asked in person — academic interests, financial aid needs or whether they’ll need housing. Then, any college that might be a good fit can contact that student directly. The survey is available to private and homeschool students too.
More financial assistance, ACCS freezes tuition
Ivey and lawmakers increased the Alabama Student Assistance Program, Alabama’s need-based aid program, to $7.2 million for the budget year that starts Oct. 1.
Purcell said his office will continue to ask for increases in student aid until the state’s offerings are on par with national numbers.
“I’ve been very happy with the leadership from the governor’s office,” Purcell said. “We certainly believe the state needs more aid, we’re competing even with our neighboring states.”
Separately, the Alabama State Board of Education this spring voted to require graduating high school students to complete the Federal Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. It’s a move leaders hope will increase access to postsecondary education for Alabama’s high school seniors.
“Over $60 million in federal financial aid is left unclaimed each year by Alabama’s seniors who do not complete the FAFSA,” Ivey spokeswoman Gina Maiola said.
Meanwhile, ACHE has a new online tool to walk students through their financial assistance options and application process.
For the 2021/2022 academic year the ACCS instituted a tuition freeze to help ensure cost was not a barrier to college entry or return, Bunning said.