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By Paul Bradley  /  
2015 December 29 - 10:01 pm

The Numbers Game

Wake Tech Manages Long-Term Growth Even as Enrollment Slows

Wake Technical Community College President Stephen C. Scott likes to cite a favorite statistic when talking about the sustained growth the college has experienced since his tenure began a dozen years ago.

One in eight adults aged 18 to 65 in fast-growing Wake County, N.C., is enrolled at Wake Tech, he said, underscoring the strong ties the college has forged with the community it serves. Couple that with strong population growth — the population of the county increases, on average, by 63 people every day due to in-migration — and you have a formula for rapid enrollment growth. The college is now the largest of North Carolina’s 58 community colleges.

“Our main challenge is facilities,” Scott said. “We can’t build them fast enough.”

But the college is trying. In 2012, voters passed a $200 million bond referendum to enable Wake Tech to build new classrooms to meet the growing demand for higher education and training. In 2008, the college bought 94 acres of property near the Research Triangle Park. It plans to open a new campus there in 2017. It will include 10 buildings and accommodate 7,000 students and will be the college’s seventh campus.

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According to a Community College Week analysis of figures from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), enrollment at Wake Tech grew by 10.4 percent between fall 2013 and fall 2014, making it the third-fastest-growing large community college in the country during that time period. In 2013, the college enrolled 19,160 full-time students, compared to 21,384 in 2014.

That bucks a trend being seen in community colleges around the country as enrollment which hit a record high in 2010 continues a steady decline. Among large colleges, only four recorded double-digit enrollment increases in 2014, CCWeek found. The deluge of students who flooded community colleges during the Great Recession has slowed to a trickle. Growth is even more anemic this year as the economy continues to improve.

Even as enrollment at many community colleges slows or recedes — and it has ticked downward in 2015 at Wake Tech — the college is managing strong long-term growth, Scott said. Last spring, the college graduated 1,467 students, an all-time record. The college has seen large enrollment increases in online classes and is striving to improve online outcomes.

Seeking to keep in step with the region’s economic needs, the college has launched a new global logistics/distribution management program as well as new business administration programs in global business management and marketing. Last year, it opened the Beltline Education Center, which offers options for completing high school equivalency testing and learning English. The center also houses an Advanced Manufacturing Center and Cosmetology School.

“We work with business and industry to stay relevant,” Scott said. “We work with economic development officials in the city, the county and the region. They identify clusters of their needs, and we try to design something to meet that need.”

A few years ago, the college was busy designing computer gaming programs as that field took off. Today, it’s all about apps.

“The market might pass us by, and we don’t want that to happen,” he said.

As proud as he is of the enrollment number, Scott is also mindful that IPEDS figures, as a yardstick for community colleges, is a deeply flawed, even misleading metric.

IPEDS counts full-time, first-time college students enrolled in credit-bearing programs leading to degrees or other recognized credentials. Students who are enrolled part-time are not included in the count. Neither are students who take professional development or enrichment courses.

IPEDS works just fine for measuring enrollment at Ivy League colleges and flagship schools. But for community colleges, the IPEDS count is often less than one-third of the students who are actually on campus every day.

“IPEDS is just a small portion of our students,” Scott said. While IPEDS counts 21,384 students as enrolled in 2014, the actual headcount, when counting part-timers, returning college students, adult learners and others, is close to 70,000 students.

Robert J. Denson, president of Des Moines Area Community College, agrees that IPEDS is an inadequate measure of what is happening on community college campuses.

According to CCWeek’s analysis of IPEDS numbers, DMACC was the fastest-growing large community college in the country between 2013 and 2014. The college enrolled 23,526 students in 2014, 14.3 percent more than the 20,167 students enrolled in 2013.

If only it was true. Due to a one-time reporting glitch, the 2013 count did not include high school students enrolled in college dual enrollment programs. The 2014 count did, however, accounting for most of the dramatic spike in enrollment, Denson said.

“We reported all the numbers legally, but it was a reporting fluke,” Denson said.

DMACC, like other community colleges, is required to collect and report the IPEDS data to the U.S. Department of Education in order for its students to qualify for federal financial aid programs. But it does not use the data when talking about the college. Denson prefers to use the metric that lawmakers utilize when doling out higher education dollars: the college’s unduplicated headcount. That number is about 37,000 students, Denson said, and more accurately reflects what is happening at the college.

Denson said his college, like many others, is struggling with declining enrollments as the economy improves. But overall enrollment is still about 25 percent more than before the beginning of the recession.

Community colleges should expect more declining enrollments over the next few years.

A recent report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that in fall 2015, college enrollments totaled just under 19.3 million, down 1.7 percent compared to fall 2014. The bulk of this fall’s decline is among students over the age of 24, whose numbers fell by 308,000.

“This fall’s numbers show ongoing challenges for colleges and universities,” stated Doug Shapiro, the center’s executive research director. “The bright spots are traditional age students at four-year public institutions and full-time students at four year public and private non-profits, which each edged up by roughly half a percent. But overall, traditional age students are continuing their slow declines and adult students are still leaving higher education in large numbers, particularly for-profit institutions and community colleges.”

Enrollments at two-year public colleges dropped by 2.4 percent, or 145,000 students, the center found. Since 2013 enrollment at public community colleges has declined by 423,000. Adult learners accounted for 89 percent of the decline. Overall enrollment at community colleges was 5.9 million.

The downward trend comes as no surprise to Scott. As the unemployment rate declines, so does community college enrollment.

“Our enrollment has slowed,” he said. “People come to us to get a job. They do not necessarily come to us to graduate. If they get a job before they graduate, they go to work.”

The downward trend will challenge community colleges to make the best use of shrinking resources and still improve academic outcomes, Scott said.

“It’s much easier to ramp up,” he said. “It’s much more difficult to ramp down.”

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