Two-year enrollments appear to surge this fall

Workers install one of four billboards in San Diego to promote enrollment opportunities at City, Mesa, Miramar and Continuing Education colleges. The marketing campaign specifically targets adult learners. (Photo: San Diego Community College District)

After tapering off somewhat during the Great Recession and even more dramatically during the Covid pandemic, community college enrollments overall appear to be blooming this fall in varying degrees, according to reports from more than a dozen colleges and systems that responded to an inquiry from Community College Daily.

At the statewide level, the Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS) expects to see a 5.8% increase for the fall semester among its 16 institutions, in the aggregate. Among other reasons, the Work Ready Kentucky Scholarship program helps those without an associate degree attain an industry-recognized certificate, degree or diploma free of charge; in the 2022-23 academic year, more than 4,200 KCTCS students received an average of about $2,800 through this scholarship, which doled out $11.8 million overall.

Sidebar: A sample of enrollment jumps and reasons behind them

In Maine, early fall enrollment is up 18%, boosted by the second year of the Free College Scholarship program for high school students, along with expanded programs — including a surge of interest in short-term workforce programs — and shrinking Covid-related restrictions. More than 200 slots were added to nursing programs statewide, which also helped to account for the increase. Central Maine Community College (26%) and Washington County Community College (25%) have experienced the largest overall spikes in enrollment.

Scholarships and welcome events

Among colleges that responded, the Community College of Rhode Island (CCRI) has seen a 5% increase in enrollment overall, a 9% increase among Black students and a 4% rise in Hispanic students vis-à-vis last year, according to Gregory LaPointe, vice president for student affairs and chief outcomes officer. CCRI has already exceeded its goal for early-college learners and is on track to reach its adult learner goal.

Through a partnership with sister institutions Rhode Island College and the University of Rhode Island, CCRI has been offering the Rhode Island Promise Program for students arriving directly from high school or receiving their GED. They get free tuition at CCRI and then, depending on their GPA, they’re accepted to one of the state higher education institutions and receive a 30% tuition discount along with personalized advising, LaPointe says.

“It’s a no-brainer for most Rhode Island students to come to us for two years and have a seamless transfer to our partners,” he says.

This summer, CCRI received state approval and $5 million for the Fresh Start Scholarship program aimed at those who attended the college and, at some point, stopped out. More than 800 state residents have availed themselves of the scholarship, which provides tuition, fees, a book allowance and wraparound services like childcare, LaPointe says.

Those programs, which are both last-dollar, are part of why, overall, “We’re on our fifth consecutive term-over-term enrollment increase,” he says. “We are definitely climbing out of our unfortunate position during the pandemic. … We’re grinding it out. We’re hustling. We are seeing the fruits of those strategies and that labor.”

Enrollment events held during the summer have also helped boost the numbers.

Straw survey: How are your fall enrollments so far?

“They’re great opportunities for a one-stop to get enrolled, get help with the financial aid steps, and also experience the robust student life at the different campuses,” says Amy Kacerik, associate vice president for student affairs at CCRI. “It’s kind of a holistic moment when we have those events to understand how student-focused we are, get enrollment assistance and feel ready for the upcoming semester.”

Ensuring students are properly enrolled and receive financial aid so they’re not dropped for nonpayment are also key, Kacerik says.

“It’s an inclusive model,” she says. “We make sure they know what they need to do, to avoid being dropped from classes. It’s important to look at the student perspective and how we can constantly, continuously better serve them.”

Removing barriers, building facilities and programs

Rhodes State College in Lima, Ohio, saw an increase in headcount of 3% for the summer, held down somewhat by an unexpected 8% drop in dually enrolled students, with the traditional population up 5%. At the outset for fall term, the school had 28% more new students and 11% more returning students than the previous year, for a total 15% increase, says Brendan Greaney, vice president for enrollment management.

Overall growth among dually enrolled students in recent years – a state-wide program known as College Credit Plus – is due largely to the growth in the number of partnering school districts, along with Rhodes State’s attempts to boost its level of service, and a 2022 State of Ohio Auditor report that tracked school district participation — which might have lit a fire under less involved high schools.

“We’ve seen a steady increase in the number of high school students wanting to take our classes online or on campus,” Greaney says, adding that the auditor’s report “definitely” spurred districts to get more involved. “Those school districts on the fringe are wanting to come into the fold. That audit went public. Parents and families saw it, and they might have been asking questions about, ‘Why isn’t my district participating in this program as much as others?’”

Bellefontaine City Schools is starting a new dual-enrollment partnership with Rhodes State College this fall. This summer, Rhodes State took its science mobile lab to the high school to let teens explore what the college offers. (Photo: Rhodes State)

Among traditional students, growth has come from an overhaul of enrollment processes to build relationships, partly through the use of Student Navigators who serve as a single point of contact. The college also waived its $25 upfront application fee and had seen a 76% increase in applications by mid-August compared to last fall.

“With our new model, that Success Navigator is that incoming student’s single point of contact for everything — financial aid, registration for first semester, if they need getting help for their books,” Greaney says. While the $25 for the application fee might not seem like much to some people, he adds, “When you look at the community college population, $25 can make a whole world of difference.”

Rhodes State also has added new agriculture, surgical technology and bachelor’s in nursing programs, while building the new Borra Center for Health Sciences. The ag program, a result of grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, primarily focuses on technology such as drones that can help farmers decide where they need fertilizer or water, for example, Greaney says. The surgical technology program grew out of conversations with area hospitals who are “seeing a huge need for that profession,” he says. “That program has exploded.”

The first 30 bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) students, all graduates of Rhodes State’s registered nursing program, have begun this fall, and are among those enjoying the $22 million health center built with a combination of college, city, state and private funding, Greaney says.

“Students are practicing and learning on the same technology they’re going to be using in the field,” he says. “Our new practices and new programs we’ve put in place are why we’re enjoying gains in enrollment.”

Lighthearted ad campaign, expanded scholarship program

In California, the San Diego Community College District (SDCCD) has seen enrollment for the fall semester increase 12% across the board, due to a combination of students returning after a pandemic hiatus, the expansion of the San Diego Promise scholarship to adult learners, and a humorous advertising campaign aimed at attracting them, including billboards with a picture of a taco that read, “Are You Ready to Taco About Your Future?”

San Diego Miramar College President Wesley Lundburg says his institution saw an increase of about 18% during the summer, compared to 10% district-wide, and that Miramar expected about the same 12% as the district overall for the fall semester, which he noted is still not quite back to pre-pandemic levels.

“The district, in general, has made a real effort in reaching out to students to say, ‘Hey, we’re here; don’t let your life continue to be derailed; let us help you,’” he says. “We’ve been working hard on the culture and making sure that the institution is student-ready — not expecting students to be college-ready — and trying to engage students in a more compassionate and friendly way. We’re hearing a lot from the students that there’s just a good vibe on campus.”

He says he suspects sister schools San Diego City College and San Diego Mesa College are on the same track.

First week of classes at San Diego Miramar College included plenty of information booths. (Photo: SDMC)

The campaign targeting adult learners is based on the notion that the Great Resignation might be giving way to people who are realizing they need to earn money again but who want to hone in on their niches a little more precisely, Lundburg says. And the widening of the San Diego Promise scholarships to adult learners — not just recently graduated high school students, as it had been — has meant free tuition for those same people.

“That’s very appealing for folks,” he says. “Anybody in California can enroll. Folks have relocated to take advantage of that.”

A district-wide fundraising effort has garnered another $2.7 million in the past five years to augment state resources, he adds, with funds targeted to former military service members, foster youth and incarcerated people. Specifically for vets, Miramar has been targeting credit for prior learning.

“If you’re a diesel mechanic in the Marines, none of that training is recognized in a traditional college credit program,” and it should be, he says.

The only change in facilities has been an expansion of the college’s veterans resource center, Lundburg says, although a multicultural center that the students have named Kaleidoscope is at the blueprint stage.

“That kind of stuff sends a strong message to students that you care about them, and you’re listening to them,” he says.

Miramar has built a greater focus on Guided Pathways that “meets students wherever they might be and helps them identify a pathway to get into the career they want,” Lundburg says. “We have embraced that institution-wide — not just in curriculum but also aligning other resources.”

And on the dual-enrollment front, SDCCD currently serves about 4,000 high school students at its three campuses — more under the age of 18 than those ages 25 to 30.

“That’s a huge, growing opportunity as we look to expand our enrollment,” he says. “When they know it’s their campus, they’re more likely to come here. They don’t have multiple transcripts, and they have a clear pathway to what they’re seeing themselves as, in the future.”

About the Author

Ed Finkel
Ed Finkel is an education writer based in Illinois.
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