Enrollment at community colleges across the country is declining, a pretty good sign that the nation's economy is picking up, school administrators said.
The Community College of Allegheny County reported a 12 percent decline in enrollment for the fall semester, and spokeswoman Elizabeth Johnston said total enrollment, which includes students taking credit and noncredit classes, was 14,237, a drop of about 2,000 from fall 2011.
"When we have spikes in unemployment, community colleges tend to get spikes in students, and when the economy improves, we tend to find enrollment decreases," Johnston said. "We are certainly doing much better here than other parts of the country, and this could be an indicator of why enrollment may be decreasing a bit."
Community colleges across the state are experiencing a similar trend. Administrators said they had record enrollments during the heart of the recession in 2008 and 2009, but numbers are trending downward.
The Community College of Beaver County and Westmoreland County Community College reported enrollment decreases of 3.5 percent and 1 percent this year, respectively. Both schools said the number of full-time students has declined, while the number of part-time students is rising.
Nick Neupauer, president of the Butler County Community College, said Marcellus shale industry jobs could be a contributing factor. He's expecting about 200 fewer students this year than the 4,275 enrolled in 2011.
"I think (Marcellus shale) could have something to do with it, and I think the economy is starting to bounce back, and that has something to do with it, too," Neupauer said.
Allegheny County's unemployment rate for June was 6.8 percent, compared with 7.5 percent for Pennsylvania and 8.2 percent for the nation.
Pennsylvania's Marcellus shale industry employed 29,000 people in its core jobs, such as drilling, in December 2011, the most recent date for which figures were available. That's a 159 percent increase over 2008, according to the state Department of Labor and Industry.
The Pittsburgh region is not the only one in the nation experiencing an enrollment decline among two-year colleges.
Norma Kent, spokeswoman for the Washington-based American Association of Community Colleges, said fall enrollment at schools nationwide is static or declining. The organization advocates for about 1,200 schools with about 13 million students taking credit and noncredit courses.
"We do know it's a cyclical situation, and it's inverse to how well the economy is doing. We've seen that over and over," Kent said.
Stefani Pashman, chief executive officer of the Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board, noted that the number of people working in Pittsburgh increased by 2,400 between May and June.
"When CCAC talks about declining enrollment, that could mean people are no longer looking for alternatives to work; they're also looking for work," Pashman said. "Now people are maybe having a little more confidence looking for jobs, so they're not looking for alternatives to going into the labor force."
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