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2012 November 26 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Still On An Upward Arc


C  O  V  E  R    S  T  O  R  Y

Nursing students collaborate on the campus of Wake Tech Community  College.

Photo courtesy Wake Tech Community College

The trend lines for community college enrollments are clear. After years of recession-fueled growth which overwhelmed some campuses and placed terms like “midnight classes” into the higher education lexicon, the boom times are over. Enrollment in community colleges is dropping.

In Iowa, for example, enrollment dropped at state community colleges for a second straight year this year after reaching record levels during the recession. 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.

In Indiana, enrollment at Ivy Tech Community College is also down 5 percent from last year. In Washington state, officials wonder whether rising tuition is to blame for a decline in community college enrollments. Nationwide, the trend has raised concerns that the Obama administration’s effort to increase the number of adults with college degrees and provide businesses with  skilled workers will falter.


CHARTS: Fastest-Growing Community Colleges, 2012 edition:

Boom Times


There is a silver lining in this particular cloud. Declining enrollments could be signaling a revived economy. When the economy declines, people go to community college to hone their skills or develop new ones. When the economy revives, people who headed to the classroom instead go to work.

The downward trend is by no means uniform, and numerous colleges are still bursting at the seams, especially in regions experiencing rapid population growth.

Chandler-Gilbert Community College, located southeast of Phoenix, for example, has known nothing but growth since it first opened its doors in 1987 and this year tops  Community College Week’s list of fastest-growing community colleges with enrollments of more than 10,000 students. According to a CCWeek analysis, the number of degree-seeking students at Chandler-Gilbert CC jumped by 14.1 percent between 2010 and 2011.

Across the country, Wake Technical Community College, near Raleigh, N.C., ranks second among large colleges with an enrollment increase of 12.2 percent. In  2012, Wake Tech surpassed 20,000 in enrollment for the first time.

More growth is on the way.
On Election Day, voters in
Wake County approved $200 million in bonds to expand the college, which currently has a waiting list of 5,400 students unable to get into desired classes.

In both Arizona and North Carolina, rapid population growth is fueling increases in enrollment. When Chandler-Gilbert Community College opened in 1987 as a branch campus of Mesa Community College, it enrolled just 3,800 students, and Chandler was a distant, dusty outpost in the Phoenix metropolitan area populated mostly by cotton fields and desert.

Today, it’s a thriving metropolitan area. As of July 2011, the population of Chandler was 240,101, according to census figures. Between 2000 and 2010, the metropolitan Phoenix area grew by nearly a million people.

The enrollment of Chandler-Gilbert CC has mirrored that of the fast-growing area. In 2001, enrollment surpassed 13,000. By 2005, it reached 17,000. This year, enrollment was nearly 20,000 students

“Rapid growth has been the norm for us,” said college President Linda Lujan. “Our growth has been phenomenal year by year.”

Other factors have contributed to the college’s exponential growth, she said. Unlike in some parts of the country, where enrollment in high schools is slowing, Chandler-Gilbert’s feeder schools continue to grow. In addition, rising tuition at Arizona’s three public universities has sent thousands of students to community college in search of an affordable education. Chandler-Gilbert has articulation agreements with all  three  universities.

“People are using community colleges as an articulated pathway more so than some other parts of the country,” Lujan said. “That continues to be a major factor in our growth.”

Wake Tech President Stephen Scott also said population growth in his college’s service area has been a key factor in the school’s rapid growth. Even during the recessionary years from 2008 to 2012, the population of Wake Tech’s service area climbed by 92,000, and is projected to increase by another 100,000 over the next four years. As of the 2010 Census, Wake County had a population of 900,993, making it North Carolina’s second-most populated county. The Census Bureau reports that Wake County is the ninth-fastest growing county in the United States.

The economy has been another factor in Wake Tech’s growth. North Carolina’s economy has been clobbered by the closure of furniture factories and textile mills and is transforming to a high-tech economy, placing a premium on education and workforce training.

“The economy has improved some, but unemployment has remained high. It’s about 7.5 percent,” Scott said. As the region’s economy changes, more skilled workers are in demand, he said.

 Wake Tech’s main campus is located about five miles south of Raleigh in the heart of North Carolina’s Research Triangle. The triangle is home of the Research Triangle Park, a primary center in the United States for high-tech and biotech research. The park is home to more than 160 companies employing over 50,000 people.

Wake Tech growth is also being fueled by an important intangible. Because of the presence of three major research universities — the University of North Carolina; Duke University and North Carolina State University — the region has a strong education ethic and higher education enjoys strong support there.

That support was demonstrated on Election Day, when voters, by a 73-27 percent margin, approved a $200 million  Wake Tech bond issue. It’s the third bond issue passed by wide margins over the past nine years.

“I think the public in this region sees the connection between community college and employment,” said Scott.

The bond money will be spent over a four-year span beginning in 2013. About 500,000 square feet of new classroom space will be built on the college’s Northern Wake campus, and 4,500 new parking spaces will be added. Construction will begin on a new Research Triangle campus.

Shepherding bond votes through to completion is just one challenge faced by fast-growing community colleges. Colleges across the country are faced with dwindling support from state governments. In Arizona, state government appropriations accounted for more than 25 percent of community college funding in the mid-1990s; today, the state contributes less than 1 percent, Lujan said.

“We are very fortunate that we get tuition and local support,” she said. “But we need to make better use of our resources to help our students succeed.”

To that end, the college is in the process of developing an Enrollment Service Center, a one-stop shop where students can take placement tests, apply for financial aid and meet with an advisor. The planned center is a tacit admission that the college has grown up and needs a sophisticated approach to providing student services. It can’t provide one-on-one service to each and every student as it did in the past, Lujan said.

Both Lujan and Scott see more growth on the horizon because their colleges are key parts of their growing communities.

“We make an effort to get that message out,” Scott said. “We are their community college. I think people see the value of community colleges, especially in tough economic times.”  

It’s YOUR TURN  CCW wants  to hear from you!
Q: What impact is slower enrollment growth having on your campus?
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