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When the Great Recession pummeled the nation’s economy late last decade, millions of Americans lost their jobs and many began searching for new lines of work.

As a result, colleges, universities and trade schools saw massive increases in student enrollment, especially among older Americans.

With today’s economy severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, postsecondary degrees and certifications will likely be in high demand once more.

So far, the pandemic has hampered enrollment for most schools during the fall semester, but local leaders in higher education believe they’ll see increased enrollment in the months and years to come as many of the 6.7 percent of Coloradans currently unemployed [as of August, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment] seek additional skills that will help them get back to work.

The Business Journal spoke with officials from Pikes Peak Community College, IntelliTec College and UCCS about how their schools were impacted by the Great Recession, and whether they expect similar trends due to COVID-19.

BACK TO SCHOOL

From the end of 2007 to the beginning of 2010, unemployment in the U.S. grew by 8.8 million.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, total college enrollment grew by 3 million from 2006 to 2011, including a 33 percent increase at two-year colleges.

Warren Epstein, executive director of marketing and communications for PPCC, said during the Great Recession, the college saw an approximately 50 percent increase in enrollment. 

“That kind of gain was unprecedented,” Epstein said. “It was mostly nontraditional students, so it was people going back to retool or looking for something more relevant to what the job market is now.”

When the pandemic arrived in Colorado, many Colorado Springs postsecondary schools projected drastic enrollment declines — Epstein said when PPCC opened enrollment as it usually does in March, they initially saw a 38 percent decline from 2019.

“People just pressed the pause button,” Epstein said. “That tremendous uncertainty about what was happening at colleges and in the community and in our country really made a difference in how many people pressed that button to enroll.”

But as time went on, Epstein said, enrollment mostly bounced back.

“With summer and fall enrollment, [we’re] about 9 percent down [from 2019],” Epstein said. “In an ordinary year that would be a bad hit, but when we were looking at 38 percent … we’re counting that as a win, and so is the rest of the [Colorado Community College] system.”

Other Springs schools, like the technical career training school IntelliTec College, also saw significant enrollment declines, but less than it had originally expected.

Wayne Zellner, vice president of operations for IntelliTec, said early in the country’s response to the pandemic, the college was expecting a 33 percent decline in enrollment.

IntelliTec has new enrollment cycles every six weeks, and its first cycle during the pandemic did show about a 24 percent decline, but Zellner said the numbers have improved each cycle since.

Zellner was not employed with IntelliTec during the Great Recession and said he couldn’t speak to its direct impact on the college, but noted trade schools like IntelliTec were “impacted in a positive way” and had some of its highest enrollment numbers during that time.

Although their admissions offices have not yet seen a boom in new enrollment, both PPCC and IntelliTec expect that will soon change.

“There’s no doubt,” Epstein said. “We’re not seeing it strong yet. But by next fall we’re going to see a real shift.”

Zellner said IntelliTec is projecting consistent enrollment growth for the foreseeable future.

“I think I can comfortably say that we’re anticipating 5 to 10 percent year-over-year growth,” Zellner said. “And we are also adding additional programs. So we’re confident enough that we are adding additional programs to meet the needs out there.”

SHIFTING STUDENT NEEDS AND DEMOGRAPHICS

Like the Great Recession’s boom in college enrollment, this one will likely be powered by older, nontraditional students. 

Epstein said recently that PPCC students have been getting younger, with the median student age dropping from approximately 28 years old to 26 over the past few years.

“But what we’re expecting to see with this new recession is a shift back,” Epstein said. “That really was the case of the last recession … by next fall I wouldn’t be surprised if we get back up to 28 as our median [age.]”

IntelliTec has not yet seen any significant change in student demographics, but CFO Tom Bezek said in past recessions, trade schools have been popular options for longtime members of the workforce launching new careers.

“More people out there need to get re-skilled to get back to work,” Bezek said. “So that’s where our [student] populations will increase. Some people have 10 or 20 years’ experience [in one industry] and then all of a sudden when the recession hit they lost their job and realized they were left behind as far as their education goes.

“And that’s where we fill those gaps and help those students get those certifications and get reemployed in their field of study, based off of what the market is demanding.” 

GRADUATE PROGRAMS SEE GROWTH AT UCCS

At UCCS, the average age of undergraduate and graduate students for the fall semester remained mostly unchanged from 2019, according to Jared Verner, director of university communications and media relations.

But Verner said the average age for students in non-degree programs — such as for professional certificates — did skew slightly older this fall, increasing from an average age of 35.1 in 2019 to 35.8 this year.

Verner said UCCS has also seen a significant increase in graduate enrollment from last fall, despite a decline in undergraduate enrollment during the same time. 

“The number of graduate credit hours went up almost 5 percent from last fall to this fall,” Verner said. “As a comparison, undergraduate enrollment went down 4.4 percent. So we’re seeing a lot more demand for the graduate-level programs, and generally speaking, that’s not entirely surprising during tough economic times — people are looking for extra credentials or anything to get a leg up.”

When students began flocking to PPCC following the Great Recession, Epstein said many sought degrees in skill trades, including health care, where they would be able to “get in, get out, and earn high salaries.”

And despite all the current uncertainties in the health care industry as a result of COVID-19, he said he expects those fields of study will remain popular going forward.

“[Health care] I think is going to continue to grow,” Epstein said. “Our nursing program has a long waiting list and other health care jobs — like, if you want to be a surgical technician or a pharmacy technician —  are still very much in demand. They are sort of fad-proof.”

Zellner said IntelliTec also offers programs in the health care industry, and expects those programs will become increasingly popular in the near future.

“Medical billing and coding is one new program for us that we just started offering,” Zellner said. “Obviously with the pandemic and such, medical fields, in general, are growing. And while there are many people who are maybe afraid [to enter a career in health care] right now, many more people see it as an opportunity and are looking to get into that field.”

 

Reporter

Zach Hillstrom is a Colorado Springs native and graduate of Colorado State University-Pueblo. He has worked as a reporter for Southern Colorado print outlets since 2015.