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Some community colleges are prioritizing enrollment

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Students register for classes at Forsyth Technical Community College in North Carolina.

Photo: Forsyth Technical Community College

Community colleges have long stressed the open-door concept, but budgetary pressuresalong with the need to better manage enrollment growth and ensure students are on a path to completionhave forced some colleges to put limits on access.

California is expected to set a statewide policy on enrollment priorities for the first time for all community colleges, which would reward students who make progress.

The new rules, to be submitted to the California Community Colleges Board of Governors in September, are based on recommendations by the California Community Colleges Student Success Task Force. If approved, the new rules would take effect in fall 2014.

“This would be a big change for the system,” said Paul Feist, vice chancellor of the California Community Colleges system.

Rewarding success

The enrollment priorities would “encourage successful student behavior” by giving priority to:

  • continuing students in good standing who are making progress toward a certificate, degree, transfer or career advancement objective
  • first-time students who participate in orientation and assessment and develop an informed education plan
  • students who begin addressing any basic skills deficiencies in their first year

Students would lose enrollment priority if they fail to follow their education plan, are placed on academic probation for two consecutive terms, fail to declare a program of study by the end of their third term or accrue 100 units (not including basic skills and English as a second language courses).

Calif. college looks to donors to retain classesThe state can no longer afford to have open access to community colleges, Feist said. State funding for California community colleges has been cut by $809 million—12 percent—since 2008-09. At the same time, total enrollment in the state’s 112 community colleges is down by 300,000, from about 2.9 million to 2.6 million students.

That decline is not due to a drop in demand: It’s because colleges that are facing shrinking budgets have had to lay off staff, resulting in a 15 percent reduction in course offerings, which means “hundreds of thousands of students are being turned away,” he said.

Setting priorities

Long Beach City College (LBCC) in California isn’t waiting for the state regulations. It already implemented a priority registration system in response to state funding cuts and shrinking enrollment. According to LBCC President Eloy Ortiz Oakley, enrollment is down about 2,000 full-time equivalent students this year compared to 2008.

“This is coming at time when we’re facing the greatest demand we’ve ever seen,” Oakley said.

Long Beach has a 12 percent unemployment rate, lots of returning veterans and some of the largest high school graduating classes in years, he noted.

“Some incoming high school graduates were not able to get the classes they needed and had to bounce around to several community colleges,” Oakley said, so LBCC began conversations about how to set priorities.

Under a new system starting with the fall semester, LBCC students with 100 credits or more will no longer receive priority when registering for classes. Priority will be given to several categories of students, including veterans, people with disabilities, foster youths, students who graduate from the Long Beach school district, incoming freshmen who go through an assessment and orientation session, and continuing students who are making academic progress.

Those who are not in one of those categories “will have a harder time getting the classes they want and the times they want,” Oakley said. “In the end, not everyone will get the classes they need. But that was happening anyway.”

LBCC’s priority system will “reward students who know what they want and push them to enroll full time rather than part time,” said Mark Taylor, director of college advancement, public affairs and government relations at LBCC.

The idea is to “get them on an academic pathway right off the bat,” Oakley added.

Some students earn many more credits than they need because they change their minds about the degree they want to pursue, they take courses they’re interested in but don’t need, or they want to remain eligible for financial aid.

“We’ve shifted our resources to courses leading to a degree or certificate,” Oakley said.

The courses most vulnerable to cutbacks are those dealing with recreation, health and wellness, the performing arts and lifelong learning.

Space crunch

Large enrollment increases, driven by dislocated workers seeking training in new skills, has forced Forsyth Technical Community College (FTCC) in North Carolina to cap the number of students admitted to certain programs, said President Gary Green, a former member of the American Association of Community Colleges’ board of directors. Since 2007, enrollment has grown by 43 percent.

“We have not limited enrollment in a systematic or formal way, but because we’ve experienced such growth over the last few years, we have in effect had to limit enrollment because we haven’t been able to offer all the courses students wanted,” Green said.

A strong demand for some programs, such as nursing and allied health, has prompted FTCC to implement selective admissions, based on test scores and grades.

“In some cases, classes fill up, and we don’t have the labs or clinical space to expand those programs, so enrollment is limited by the capacity of the college,” Green said.

In order to serve everybody, “we would have to do more construction, purchase more equipment and hire more faculty,” Green said, and that isn’t easily accomplished when the state has cut higher education funding every year over the past few years.

He estimates several hundred students each semester have difficulty getting the classes they want at the times convenient for them to meet their work and family schedules.

“The challenge for community colleges is not just managing growth, but making sure programs are meeting employers’ needs,” Green said.

Over the past six months, “we’ve been seeing the impact of the skills gap,” he said, with employers needing more highly skilled workers in such areas as advanced manufacturing, health care and information technology. FTCC has programs in those areas,  Green said, “but we’re not able to provide enough graduates to meet the rapid increase in demand.”

Smoothing out the bubble

Salt Lake Community College (SLCC) in Utah has so far been able to manage soaring enrollment growth without limiting access by “doing things in a more nuanced way,” said spokesperson Joy Tlou.

The college has seen three consecutive years of growth, totaling 13 percent, along with three consecutive years of budget cuts, including a 17-percent cut in state funding for 2011-12.

To smooth out the “huge fall enrollment bubble,” SLCC encouraged students to take more basic courses during the summer when teacher costs are lower due to a compressed schedule, Tlou said.

For the first time, SLCC eliminated late registration last fall, and to deal with the overflow, created a new, shorter but more compressed term starting in October.

Those changes “spread enrollment pressure over a longer period of time, so we didn’t have to put a cap on enrollment,” Tlou said.

SLCC also eliminated some programs—like barbering and cosmetology—that were expensive but were less likely to lead to gainful employment, increased the number of online courses and established a mandatory orientation session.

“We’re making sure students planned to be there and are there on the first day,” Tlou said.

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