Visiting the Rock Island Student Center recently, Heather Kellon, a 19-year-old freshman from Champaign, Illinois, heard chatter that apparently didn’t echo well with her. It came from a group of people of different races, who were still apparently angry at the idea of a voter registration drive in their area.
“People were just yelling at us,” Ms. Kellon recalled.
For Ms. Kellon, the event represented the first major change in her life since enrolling in a community college nine months ago. For the first time in years, she is not completing an associate’s degree that would have earned her a transfer to a four-year school. Her relationship with higher education is undergoing a radical transformation.
The sharp decline in enrollment in community colleges over the past decade has made institutions like Rock Island unpredictable, risky and increasingly under pressure to increase revenues and downsize to combat the loss of state support.
At community colleges across the country, enrollment has fallen 12 percent during that period, according to the Association of Community Colleges of America. More than half of those schools now enroll fewer than 2,000 students.
One reason for the decline: After four years of economic growth and income growth, more people are choosing to stay in college or transfer from four-year schools, where tuition and fees have climbed ever higher. But a second, more long-term reason is what appears to be a disenchantment with community colleges among many American families.
“People are saying, ‘There’s all this talk about college, but I don’t see anyone in my family who has a college degree,’ ” said William Levitin, director of the education division of the New America Foundation.
The decline in education at the community college level puts a hefty burden on taxpayers, who partly compensate for the loss of state funding by forcing states to pay for the cost of educating students. While enrollment is down nationwide, the 20 largest states’ public colleges are enrolling far more students than in 2000, according to data from the American Association of Community Colleges.
Many of those big states, including Texas, Florida and New York, have cut millions of dollars from their colleges in recent years, leaving few options, the association said.
In Illinois, state officials say rising student debt levels, coupled with increasing graduation rates, have made community colleges such as Rock Island an attractive option, which has produced enough student interest that the state is looking to replace reductions in its funding.
Over the last 10 years, Illinois has reduced its funding of community colleges by an average of 7 percent, the American Association of Community Colleges said.
This year, Illinois, which maintains a seven-campus system with two-thirds of its students attending community colleges, became the seventh state to increase its funding for community colleges to help cope with declining enrollment, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. New York State is also increasing its funding, the association said.
But the fact that student demand for higher education continues to grow despite deep declines in state support makes it harder for communities to adjust to the financial situation, critics said.
Community colleges in Illinois have been especially hard hit by the budget cuts over the last decade, rising by only 1 percent, compared with a 22 percent increase at four-year colleges. Rock Island’s board of trustees, which oversees the daily operations of the entire campus, approved a plan this fall to develop a strategic plan to address the needs of the 21st century — even as it looks to further trim its budget.
“We’re having to make sure that we are providing an excellent educational experience to students, even though we may have to budget for the lowest number of students possible,” said Bernard Thompson, the president of Rock Island Community College.
The closing of some two-year public colleges across the country is forcing college administrators like Ms. Kellon to look for new business models to make up for a shrinking budget.
In the recent vocal campaign against the voter registration drive, students at Rock Island, including Ms. Kellon, wanted to end the event because they felt students should be able to register for college on the spot, rather than at a campus center.