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As economy picks up, community college enrollments turn down

Updated: 2013-09-20T15:55:07Z

By MARÁ ROSE WILLIAMS

The Kansas City Star

Brian Bode has his own economic indicator right here on the campus of Kansas City Kansas Community College.

Check the parking lots, said Bode, the college’s vice president of financial and administrative services. These days, “It’s a lot easier finding a spot.”

At the height of the Great Recession five years ago, unemployed and underemployed people flocked to two-year public colleges, filling classrooms and parking lots. Now, with the economy improving, enrollment is slipping toward pre-recession levels.

“We are definitely seeing our enrollment declining,” said Tuesday Stanley, vice chancellor for student development at Metropolitan Community College-Kansas City.

National enrollment numbers aren’t in yet, said Kent Phillipe, associate vice president for research and student success at the American Association of Community Colleges. “But we are hearing institutions all across the country talking about their enrollments going down.”

In 2008, community college enrollments across the country shot up an average 10 percent, with growth continuing into 2010.

Metropolitan Community College-Kansas City and KCK Community College saw the largest classes in their history.

“And it happened fast, like a tsunami,” Bode said.

KCK Community College’s enrollment went from 5,800 full-time students in 2008 to 7,500 in 2010, a record.

“We were like, ‘Where are we going to put them all?’”

Enrollment is down to about 6,700 students at the college. The number of credit hours being taken is down 8 percent from last fall.

Raymond Blowers, a 41-year-old former driver for FedEx Ground, arrived at the MCC Business and Technology campus in 2010 seeking an associate’s degree in computer drafting and design.

He’d noticed the economy was taking its toll even on FedEx, which saw total package shipments plunge in 2009 and 2010. Plus, Blowers had bad knees, he said, and “I had topped out salary-wise as a driver at FedEx, and the opportunities for me weren’t there.”

The only way to advance and make a better wage to care for his wife and young daughter was to head back to school and change his career path. He chose community college rather than a four-year school “because it was a lot more cost-effective,” he said.

In March 2012, nine months before he graduated in December, Blowers landed a job with Sega Engineering in Overland Park. He increased his salary by more than $10,000 a year.

Blowers remembers many adult students on campus who were changing career paths. Classmates he kept in touch with all have left college and have found jobs.

MCC’s enrollment is down 5 percent from last year, and Stanley said college leaders expect it to “drop slightly more next year.”

Officials at Johnson County Community College also expect to see a drop in enrollment this year.

Since 2009, when enrollment there spiked to 21,000 students, it has been dropping about 1.5 percent each year. Dennis Day, vice president of student success at JCCC, expects enrollment there to have fallen off “at least another 1.5 percent” when official numbers are in later this month.

The decline at community colleges is among nontraditional students — those 25 and older, who needed more training or a new career — and recent high school graduates. With the economy picking up, fewer young students are having to choose the less expensive two-year colleges over four-year universities.

If enrollment continues to fall, school officials fear their colleges eventually will feel a financial pinch, Stanley said.

When enrollment soared, schools hired more staff, although many of the new teachers were adjunct instructors working part time.

KCK Community College won’t reduce full-time faculty numbers just yet, Bode said. The college is waiting for enrollment to stabilize.

“Then we’ll know just how many faculty we need,” he said.

The best-case scenario, Bode said, would be that the community college hangs on to some of the enrollment it added during the recession.

“The surge was a big balloon for us, and now there just isn’t helium flowing to keep the balloon filled,” he said.

To reach Mará Rose Williams, call 816-234-4419 or send email to mdwilliams@kcstar.com.

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