No one panics when college enrollment numbers are up. But when they fall, as they have been for years at St. Louis Community College, school leaders usually look at the job market as the culprit.

The rule is that community college enrollments are inverse to the economy — workers typically head back to school in a bad economy to learn new skills while waiting out a weak job market.

And when the economy improves, community colleges generally see their enrollment numbers drop.

But the state of the economy doesn’t quite explain what’s been going on at St. Louis Community College, where — except for a three-year spike in the middle of the Great Recession — enrollment has mostly been in a free fall for the past 25 years.

And school leaders have struggled to explain why.

“I knew when I took the job that this had been a problem for a while,” newly hired St. Louis Community College Chancellor Jeff Pittman said recently.

For Pittman, and for the region, finding an answer is going to be increasingly more important.

The health of a metro area’s colleges and universities is generally seen as a strong indicator of a region’s long-term economic outlook. A better educated population makes more money, spends more money, attracts other highly educated people and entices new businesses to the area.

So it’s disturbing for many that enrollment at St. Louis Community College has dropped to just shy of 19,000 this year from 32,000 in 1990.

It’s a trend that’s having a ripple effect. Last month, the University of Missouri-St. Louis announced that it had an $8 million hole in its budget partly because it was expecting a 2 percent enrollment increase, but got a 4 percent decrease instead.

UMSL spokesman Bob Samples blamed the falling enrollment on several factors, including a steady decline in the numbers of transfer students — including from St. Louis Community College.

With roughly 75 percent of its student body made up of transfer students, UMSL has long been tops in the state in enrolling community college students looking to transfer to a four-year university.

Declining student interest at UMSL and St. Louis Community College simultaneously could be a particularly bad omen for St. Louis’ prospects for growth.

At St. Louis Community College, the job of turning things around will fall on Pittman.

In July, he became the fifth chancellor in eight years.

That kind of instability, coupled with the area’s changing demographics, could be two major factors hurting the school’s enrollment, Pittman said.

“Between 2014 and 2020, we’re expected to decline in population by 19 percent in St. Louis and 9 percent in St. Louis County," among young people between 15 and 24, he said.

One way to address the shifting demographics is to cast a wider net through online programs. Pittman’s previous job was developing the online curriculum at Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana, a public community college system with more than 200,000 students on 30 campuses.

In St. Louis, “we’re seeing growth in students 30 years old and up,” he said. “That may be how we repurpose. There is a market out there for online community college courses.”

Administrators could also look at investing more in traditionally popular programs such as culinary arts and programs growing in popularity, including business administration, nursing and engineering.

Another key to boosting enrollment will be selling high school students on the merits of a local community college as an affordable option close to home that can be a launching pad to a quality career or a four-year degree.

One way to do this is through dual-enrollment courses through which high school students can earn college credit.

“You can leave high school with 18 to 21 credit hours if you’re doing it right,” Pittman said.

In July, Pittman said there were about 100 area students enrolled in dual enrollment courses. After talking with different high schools, there are now more than 600 students taking dual enrollment courses, he said.

But to truly address decades of declining enrollment, accurately diagnosing the symptoms will have to be the first step.

Jolanta Juszkiewicz, director of policy analysis with the American Association of Community Colleges, said that would be a tough task.

Community college enrollment can vary widely based on the number and kinds of jobs available in a particular city; how volatile the job market is; a population’s poverty level; the quality of area high schools; and how well they prepare students for postsecondary education.

When you look at declining enrollment, “it’s probably not just one big thing,” Juszkiewicz said. “It’s likely there are 15 different reasons. Each reason might be miniscule, but when you add it all up it becomes cumulative.”