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By Paul Bradley  /  
2011 November 28 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Downward Trend


C  O  V  E  R     S  T  O  R  Y

What goes up must come down, goes the old adage, something that these days could apply to NASA rockets, the stock market and President Obama’s polling numbers.


CHARTS: Fastest-Growing Community Colleges, 2011 edition:

ANALYSIS: Enrollment Gains Moderate After Years of Rapid Growth


For a growing number of community colleges across the country, it is beginning to characterize their enrollment figures.

After years of record-breaking enrollments that seemed forever on an upward trajectory and prompted colleges to schedule midnight classes and cram students into every campus nook and cranny, enrollments in some places are beginning to slow. In some cases, enrollment is on the decline. For example:

  • In Connecticut, enrollment across the state’s 12 community colleges in the current academic year dropped for the first time in 13 years. Student head counts slipped 7.4 percent for full-time student enrollments and 1 percent overall this fall — to 57,674 full- and part-time students.

  • In Illinois, many community colleges reported a second consecutive year of enrollment declines, suggesting that enrollment might have peaked in 2009 during the depth of the Great Recession.

In Michigan, community colleges are seeing enrollment declines of between 3 and 5 percent this year, according to Mike Hansen, president of the Michigan Community College Association.

Hansen and others are quick to note that despite the recent declines, community college enrollment remains at historic highs, fueled by the prolonged economic downturn that sent unemployed workers to school in search of new careers and pushed increasing numbers of high school graduates to community colleges to avoid the skyrocketing costs of four-year schools.

“In context, for Michigan colleges, this is the second-highest enrollment we have ever experienced,” Hansen said. “When you’re seeing record increases – 35 percent between 2005-06 and 2009-10 – a 5 percent drop doesn’t seem like that much. It’s like the mall on a crowded Sunday. If you have 5 percent fewer people, it’s hard to notice.”

Sandy Baum, an economist and independent analyst for the College Board, doubted whether the enrollment declines signal an overall trend for community colleges.

“I don’t think that what we are seeing is any kind of dramatic slowdown,” she said. “Anything that goes up that rapidly will slow down eventually. Enrollments at community colleges are still at historic highs.”

Still, there are some reasons for the declining numbers some community colleges are experiencing, Baum said. Among them are the state of the economy and the extended duration of the economic downturn.

“At the height of the recession, people who were on the margins and had lost their jobs were returning to school,” she said. “A lot of people who were on the fence jumped in. Now that fewer people are losing their jobs, people are saying ‘should I or shouldn’t I?’ It’s not like people don’t want to go to college.”

Hansen cites some other reasons for the enrollment downturn. In some parts of Michigan, the epicenter of the economic downturn, the economy is improving and people are finding jobs instead of going to school. The end of No Worker Left Behind, a state program which covered tuition for unemployed workers, means some potential students can’t afford to go to college. In addition, the college-age population is shrinking after steadily climbing for years.

Finally, there is the notion of market saturation: that displaced workers wanting to go back to college already are in the pipeline or working their way through it.

There are some notable exceptions to the trend. In Texas, for example, community college enrollment climbed by more than 6 percent this year, or more than 46,000 students, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Council. The Lone Star College System alone added 11,854 students.

For most colleges experiencing enrollment declines, they generally are not causing alarm or prompting officials to bolster recruitment efforts or scour for students. An exception is Niagara County Community College, near Buffalo, N.Y., which anticipated an enrollment dip several years ago and started planning to combat it, said Bassam M. Deeb, vice president of student services.

At Niagara, enrollment this year is down about 3.4 percent, to about 7,100 students, after several years of significant increases. That figure is still a 20 percent increase from the 5,000 students who were enrolled in the college in 2004.

“We had a good number of students who did not come back to school this year and did not graduate,” Deeb said. “We believe that perhaps their economic circumstances changed and they needed to work.” Other students might have gone on to four-year schools, which aggressively recruit students in upstate New York, Deeb said. Those who transferred without earning a community college credential generally are not tracked.

Those aggressive recruiting tactics are among the reasons that Niagara began plotting steps to boost enrollment, even as demographic trends and a dwindling population pointed to a downward trend.

“We were projecting that our best enrollment scenario would be flat, irrespective of what we might do in terms of marketing,” Deeb said.

So the college took several steps to make itself more inviting to prospective students. In 2008, it opened dormitories on campus for the first time. The Student Housing Village can accommodate up to 350 students and provides private, fully-wired, fully-furnished bedrooms, kitchens and apartment-style living spaces. The occupancy rate in the dorms is near 100 percent. Sixty-five percent of the residents come from outside Niagara County.

“We knew that as we recruited students from outside our home county, we needed to give students a different perspective of who we are,” Deeb said. “A lot of students want a more complete college experience.”

College officials also decided to open a branch campus, in nearby Niagara Falls, which will focus on the hospitality industry, tourism and culinary arts. Set to open next fall, the campus is expected to have an initial enrollment of about 350 students. That number is expected to grow to 1,000 students by 2014, providing the college with the bulk of its projected future growth. The college predicts that overall enrollment will reach 7,800 students by then.

While Niagara is moving to sustain and grow its enrollment, across the country, at Pima Community College in Arizona, officials are moving in the other direction, intentionally downsizing in the wake of steep cuts in state support.

State appropriations for Pima plummeted from $26 million to $7 million in the current fiscal year. That has forced the college to redefine its mission and begin the process of shrinking itself. Earlier this year, in a message to college employees, Chancellor Ray Flores said, “We are preparing a long-term strategy that acknowledges the disappointing reality that the state of Arizona is getting out of the business
of funding Pima Community College.

“Toward that end, the College has to become smaller, with perhaps as many as 10 percent fewer students over the next two years, in order to remain financially stable during what appears to be an extended economic downturn in the state. We simply cannot sustain the number of students we have in the past.”

Starting this fall, the college will amend its open-admission policy and retreat from a
full-fledged developmental education program. Applicants must have a high school diploma or a GED and pass a threshold on placement tests. Those that score at the bottom will be turned away.

“Students scoring at the very bottom will be refused admittance and will be referred to other resources that might help them overcome their academic deficiencies, such as Adult Education, assuming it continues to receive funding,” Flores wrote.

He concluded that the college must hone its mission and focus on what it does best.

“We cannot help every student,” he wrote. “PCC is recognized as one of the best community colleges in the nation... In establishing Pima Community College in 1969, the people of Pima County sought to create an institution of higher learning. Responsible governance demands that we direct our limited resources where our constituents have directed us, and where they can do the most good.”

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Q:  Is enrollment noticeably  trending downward on your campus?
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