City Colleges see big boost in continuing education enrollment

  • By Peter Sachs
  • Staff Writer
  • February 18, 2009 @ 2:30 PM

Thousands more students are enrolled in continuing education courses at the City Colleges of Chicago now than in past years, leading the district to add new classes on everything from yoga to medical billing.

In the fall of 2008, about 11,400 adults signed up for so-called continuing education courses, an increase of 24 percent compared to the 9,200 people who took those courses in the fall of 2007.

Enrollment surged more dramatically among “special interest” courses that include things like fitness, foreign languages and cooking. Those saw enrollment increase by 30 percent in the same time period, and the district added more than 150 new course sections.

Workers worried about keeping their jobs or looking for a new job invariably explain some of the increase in continuing education, says Russ Mills, the district’s new director for continuing education.

“The workforce people, they’re thinking about changing their career or upgrading their skills to preserve their job or get a new job,” Mills says.

Classes in topics like medical billing, sustainable construction techniques, paralegal work and certification to be a nursing assistant also have seen bumps in enrollment.

“Everyone is looking to beef up their skills for the jobs that are in demand, and right now is kind of touchy-feely, but we do know ‘green’ is in and anything pertaining to the construction trades that deals with green … is a good place to be,” says Deborah Cable, the spokeswoman at the district’s Kennedy-King College, in Englewood.

But it’s hard to pin the all of enrollment increases across the City Colleges on the sour economy, Mills says. Part of it may be as simple as residents feeling cabin fever from a harsh winter looking for reasons to get out of their homes and take up a new hobby.

“It’s a combination of people taking classes because it’s wintertime, and for whatever reason, they want to get out and also they have more time,” Mills says.

District officials don't currently survey continuing education students to find out why they sign up for classes, nor is such a survey in the works.

Nonetheless, the enrollment trends at the City Colleges are somewhat unusual, Mills says.

When times are tough, people generally seek out programs that earn credits or lead to a degree. In turn, continuing education programs that meet less frequently and don’t count toward a degree see their enrollment figures drop.

But that’s not what’s happening at the City Colleges. Enrollment is rising in for-credit degree programs: up 9 percent last fall compared to the year before. But it is climbing at an even higher rate for continuing education programs.

Mills and district spokeswoman Elsa Tullos say the district is attracting more continuing education students with a more targeted marketing program, which is why its enrollment figures are bucking broader trends.

“We’re seeing a cross section” of students, Cable says. “In most cases, people are preparing themselves for new opportunities.”

Daily News Staff Writer Peter Sachs covers higher education. He can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 18