No one denies Maryland needs a highly skilled workforce to compete successfully in the 21st-century global marketplace. So at first glance it may seem like a bad thing that enrollments in the state's community colleges have fallen sharply over the p ast three years.

In fact, however, the decline may reflect good news for the state's economy because enrollment trends at community colleges often run counter-cyclical to economic conditions. During the last recession, people who couldn't find employment enrolled in community college to improve their credentials and job prospects. Now those investments in their education are paying off as people return to work.

Maryland's falling two-year college enrollment reflects a national trend that includes institutions in neighboring Virginia and the District of Columbia as well. Nationwide, community college enrollments fell 3 percent last year and by nearly the same amount in 2012. Virginia's 24 public two-year colleges saw enrollments drop 2 percent last year and 3 percent since 2010. And in the District, 5 percent fewer such students were enrolled that during the previous year.

But Maryland's decline in two-year college enrollment was even steeper than the national average, down 4 percent since 2012 and nearly 6 percent since 2010, with some schools showing even bigger losses. Baltimore City Community College, for example, saw its student body shrink by 24 percent since 2010, and Prince George's Community College lost 8 percent over the same period.

BCCC's numbers may be something of an outlier, but in general, Maryland's enrollment drops suggest two possibilities: Marylanders were more inclined than most to go back to school when times get tough or the economic recovery is proceeding here faster than elsewhere, or perhaps a combination of the two.

The downside to the recent enrollment declines, however, is the drop in tuition revenue that the schools need to stay afloat. The state's community colleges tend not to get nearly the attention lawmakers pay to the state's four-year institutions and K-12 schools, and that neglect translates into real hardship for two-year colleges when it comes to funding.

Community colleges are supposed to be funded in equal parts by state government, local government and student tuition. But during the last recession the state cut its contribution, which now makes up only about one-fifth of the institutions' operating costs. As a result, tuition now makes up fully half the funding for community colleges, and given that enrollments are still falling, the schools will face an ever tighter financial squeeze as time goes on.

The solution isn't to simply raise tuition costs. Though community colleges charge much less for tuition than their four-year counterparts, there's a limit to how much community college students can be expected to pay without defeating the purpose of a two-year school. Nor can community colleges rely on wealthy alumni or huge endowments to make up the difference.

Cutting the hours of part-time faculty and reducing employee benefits ultimately weaken the institutions' ability to carry out their educational mission. The real problem is that the state has long failed to adequately fund its community colleges. If lawmakers don't demonstrate a greater commitment to these educational resources, they won't be able to respond as well the next time the economy goes sour.


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