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By Paul Bradley  /  
2013 December 9 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Ups and Downs

Photo Courtesy University of New Mexico-Taos
Nursing is a fast-growing program at the University of New Mexico-Taos. The first two student cohorts passed their licensure exams at a 100 percent rate. 

C  O  V  E  R    S  T  O  R  Y
Ups and Downs
College Enrollment Falling, but Not Everywhere
By Paul Bradley

After years of rapid enrollment growth, U.S. higher education is settling into a new normal. Two decades of sustained enrollment gains at American high schools have ended, and the overall high school population is now in decline, according to a report produced by the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.

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That demographic trend means that colleges will no longer be able to rely on the growth in the supply of high school graduates to boost enrollment and keep tuition dollars rolling in. Rather, the institutions will be competing for a dwindling number of students. Only elite colleges and universities can expect escalating demand.

At the same time, the pool of future college students is growing more racially and ethnically diverse, putting pressure on policymakers and practitioners to improve educational attainment gaps among groups that have been underrepresented and underserved.

“These two trends will define the ‘new normal’ for our colleges and universities — and will require those of us working in higher education to change the way we do business,” says David Longanecker, president of WICHE, which published the report titled Knocking at the College Door. “Institutions will no longer be able to rely on growth in the number of traditional-aged students to boost funding. At the same time, the changing demographics of our high school graduating classes will mean greater demand for a college education from students we traditionally have not served well. Higher education must commit to finding innovative, cost-effective ways to prepare those students to succeed in our 21st century global economy.”

Community colleges around the country are experiencing the downward enrollment trend. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, enrollment at two-year public colleges — pumped up since 2007 by the effects of the Great Recession — is now headed in the opposite direction. In the spring of 2013, enrollment in the sector dropped by 3.6 percent compared to the year before. Only enrollment at four-year for-profit colleges has declined at a faster clip.

The effects can be seen on campuses around the country:

  • In Iowa, community college enrollment this fall dropped 3.5 percent, the third consecutive year of decline, according to fall enrollment data. Enrollment at Iowa’s 15 community colleges peaked in 2010 at more than 106,000 students. This fall’s enrollment estimate is 97,054.

  • In Maryland, fall enrollment at Anne Arundel Community College has dipped 6.7 percent over the last year. Enrollment dropped from 17,650 full- and part-time students in fall 2012 to 16,463 students this fall. That means a $3 million decline in revenues, leaving the school looking for ways to cut costs.

  • In Ohio, the number of students going to college started to fall in 2012 after rapid enrollment growth following the 2007 economic meltdown. Last year, statewide college enrollment dropped almost 6 percent, bringing many schools close to their pre-recession levels. This year, enrollment fell 2 percent more, with several community colleges dropping in the double digits.

But the national enrollment declines mask some important regional trends, according to an analysis by the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York.

The number of high school graduates is actually on the rise in many states in the South and the West. Meanwhile, high school graduating classes are growing more diverse. Between 2008-09 and 2019-20, the number of white high school graduates will drop by 228,000, while Hispanic graduates will increase by 197,000, the WICHE report found.

“To offset declining local enrollments, institutions will have to look at new populations within the state and reach further into the out-of-state market,” wrote Jason E. Lane, director of education studies at the Rockefeller Institute. “In some regions, institutions can target non-traditional students, helping mid-career workers retool their skills and expand access to minority and first-generation students.”

Much of that work already is well under way at community colleges. But colleges that will truly thrive will be innovators located in areas of rapid population growth, with large minority populations and close ties to their local communities.

They will look like the University of New Mexico-Taos, a small, rural, two-year college that has a service area of more than 2,000 square miles. Enrollment there increased by 8.9 percent in 2013 to 1,857 students. Since 2009, enrollment has increased by 21.9 percent.

Kate O’Neill has been the college’s executive director for the past seven years. She joined the college as an adjunct professor in 2004 after earning two degrees from Harvard and knows the college inside and out. She attributes its growth to the real-world courses offered by the school to a population that is more than 64 percent Hispanic. The college emphasizes allied health fields; its first two cohorts of nursing students had a 100 percent pass rate on licensure exams.

It also stresses green energy fields. Its main campus is the site of a 3 ½ –acre solar array, and is 100 percent solar-powered, the only community college in the country that can make that claim.

“The good news is we are growing,” O’Neill said. “The bad news is we’re growing.” While UNM-Taos is the fastest-growing college in the state, it has the second- lowest amount of square footage per student in New Mexico, she said.

“In many ways we are the center of our community,” O’Neill said. “The role of the community college is key to this region. We’re really trying to meet their needs.”

The college has recently made some moves to manage its growth. It struck a deal with the Taos Town Council to acquire the Taos Convention Center for $1. The step will give the college a presence in downtown Taos and will be the site of nursing and other workforce development programs which directly impact the town’s economy.

The college’s enrollment also has been boosted by dual enrollment programs. Dual enrollment currently accounts for 38.1 percent of fall enrollment. There are 708 dual enrollment students enrolled at the college.

Dual enrollment has also helped South Texas College avoid a decline in overall enrollment. While the college has seen a drop in traditional students over the past two semesters, dual enrollment has continued to increase and now accounts for all the college’s growth. Enrollment increased by about 1.3 percent in 2012 after several years of growth rates of nearly 5 percent.

“With more than 31,000 students, its hard to sustain growth rates of 3 to 5 percent,” said college President Shirley Reed.

In a region with low education attainment rates and high unemployment, policymakers are trying to create a college-going culture, and that’s the intent behind STC’s aggressive dual enrollment program. More than 12,000 dual enrollment students attend STC.

All 68 high schools in the counties served by the college offer some form of dual credit. The college has also created specialized dual enrollment academies in fiels like engineering, science, allied health and criminal justice.

STC also has close ties with its service area. Last month, voters approved a $159 million bond issue to expand the college’s facilities. The measure passed despite a strong anti-government sentiment in Texas.

“It was a tough climate in which to do this, but we worked with our schools and with our employers,” she said. “I think its shows that for young people who want to start a career, this is the place to come.”

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