DES MOINES - Enrollment has dropped at Iowa community colleges for a second straight year after reaching record levels during the recession, and one official said that could be a sign of an improving state economy.
"When the economy improves, people that were going to school go back to work," said M.J. Dolan, executive director of the Iowa Association of Community College Trustees. "When the economy declines, people come to community college to hone their skills."
A review of data provided by the colleges shows the state's 15 community colleges enrolled about 100,500 students this fall, a 5 percent drop from a year ago, The Des Moines Register reported Thursday.
Last year's drop was less than 1 percent.
During the recession, community colleges saw more 25- to 49-year-old students who were learning new skills when they were unable to find work, officials said.
Enrollment peaked in 2010 at more than 106,000 students. Now fewer of those students are taking classes because they have returned to the workforce.
Iowa Central Community College in Fort Dodge had an 82-student decrease.
The drop was good news because it meant the local economy is rebounding, President Dan Kinney said.
About one-quarter of last spring's 1,052 graduates had previously been laid off when Swedish-owned Electrolux shuttered its Webster City plant in 2009, Kinney said. It's not known how many of those 264 graduates that had worked at Electrolux found new jobs.
"Those are numbers, honestly, I don't want back, because that means a business closed," Kinney said.
With a healthier economy, there are fewer students the age of Tammy Woodson, 36, of Bondurant. She is working toward a nursing degree at Des Moines Area Community College.
"I've been waitressing for years," Woodson said. "Now I want a career."
DMACC, the state's largest community college, saw enrollment drop by nearly 7 percent this fall.
Not all Iowa community colleges saw a decrease in students.
Enrollment increased this fall Iowa Western Community College in Council Bluffs, Iowa Valley Community College in Marshalltown and at Northwest Iowa Community College in Sheldon.
Community colleges, in general, expect enrollment to stabilize next fall, and then grow for a few years at 2 to 3 percent. Growth is expected to come from continued popularity of professional programs like welding, and from recent high school graduates.