by Marty Cook
Posted 1/20/2014 12:00 am
Updated 6 months ago
The two largest two-year colleges in Arkansas are feeling the bite of constricting enrollment.
Pulaski Technical College in North Little Rock and Northwest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville are expecting another drop in enrollment figures. Official head counts are not reported until Jan. 28, the 11th day of spring semester classes, but the numbers are down at both schools.
It’s a nationwide trend, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which reported that enrollment at two-year colleges was down 3.6 percent in spring 2013 from the previous year and down 5.4 percent from the previous semester. The numbers for NWACC and Pulaski Tech are expected to be worse this year.
NWACC reported 8,020 students in the 2013 fall semester, a drop of 3.8 percent. Enrollment for the current semester is still active, but NWACC officials said the school had 7,018 students enrolled as of Tuesday, 9 percent fewer than the 7,716 the school had on Jan. 14, 2013.
“It is a little concerning that we’re seeing the negative trend,” said Todd Kitchen, NWACC’s vice president for learner support services. “It’s something we continue to pay attention to.”
Pulaski Tech saw its enrollment decrease by nearly 12 percent from 11,938 to 10,533 last semester, the first decrease for the school since 1991. This semester may bring the second.
Tim Jones, the associate vice president for public relations and marketing, said the school had preliminary enrollment numbers slightly more than the 10,533 from last semester before a recent purge of non-paying students. Cindy Harkey, Pulaski Tech’s vice president for student services, said the school had about 10,100 students enrolled as of last Tuesday.
“We’re hoping to make it to 10,500,” Harkey said. “We’re optimistic. It may be less.”
Harkey was able to joke about Pulaski Tech’s enrollment hit from last semester. After 20-plus years of increases, it was surprising but also not surprising, Harkey said.
“It’s a whole new world for us,” Harkey said. “We could tell by preparing enrollment that is was happening. We’ve seen the trend that it is happening nationwide.”
Steven Hinds, the executive director of public relations at NWACC, said the school has had two purges of non-paying students, the latest one Tuesday morning. It cut 194 students from the roll.
Officials at both school said the enrollment declines are the result of a combination of factors. The economy has stabilized and unemployment has eased a bit, officials said, so potential community college students have found the job market more attractive than the classroom.
Another critical factor is recent federal regulations that have placed restrictions on financial aid available to students, limiting the length of time a student can receive aid and making it harder for some students to receive aid if they have defaulted in the past.
“They just don’t have the dollars to pay for school out of pocket,” said Brandi Hinkle of the Arkansas Department of Higher Education. “Sometimes financial aid affects whether they go and how many hours they take at a time.”
The report from the National Student Clearinghouse bears that out. Full-time student enrollment dropped 5.2 percent and enrollment by students age 24 or older dropped 6.2 percent from 2012 to 2013.
At the same time, the Arkansas Lottery Scholarship has become less generous. Starting in the fall of 2013, eligible students attending two-year colleges receive $2,000 a year. Two-year college students received $2,500 a year when the lottery scholarships were first awarded in the fall of 2010, an amount that had already been reduced to $2,250 for the 2011-12 and 2012-13 academic years.
Both NWACC and Pulaski Tech have purged their spring semester enrollment rolls for non-payment. Harkey said this is common because students sign up for classes expecting to receive aid — or expecting the aid application to be quick — and then don’t have any money to pay the first tuition bill.
Officials at both colleges said they have found that many purged students later find the financing and re-enroll, but there’s no way of predicting how many will each semester.
“Many students register but don’t have money or financial aid so have to drop out later when money doesn’t show up,” Harkey said. “It is really hard to predict what the enrollment is going to be. Many two-year college students decide late to go to school and think financial aid is a quick guarantee process. They think, ‘I’m going to get aid, too.’”
The expected drop in enrollments isn’t yet causing hardships at the colleges. Officials at Pulaski Tech, which has grown from 800 students in 1991, said the school plans to tighten up operationally and postpone non-essential purchases.
Kitchen said NWACC will collapse classes — for example, offering 20 Spanish I classes instead of 25 — but won’t do anything that will affect the quality of the education offered. Kitchen also said the college, like Pulaski Tech, will postpone fulfilling its “wish list.”
“Anything that is going to affect the student’s experience is not an option,” Kitchen said. “We do look for ways to be efficient. That wish list becomes obsolete. We may want some particular upgrades to facilities — well, those things are going to go on the back burner.
“Those are the low-hanging fruit we first consider.”
Pulaski Tech relies on tuition and student fees for about 58 percent of its $47.8 million budget, with the rest being supplied by the state Legislature. Pulaski Tech charges $95 per credit hour, so a reduction in the number of students as well as the number of credits they take can add up.
Unlike Pulaski Tech, NWACC receives local taxes in addition to money appropriated by the state Legislature and student tuition and fees. The college gets 2.6 mills from a Benton County property tax, first passed in August 1989, that supplies about $5.6 million of the school’s $43 million budget.
NWACC charges $75 per credit hour to students from the Bentonville and Rogers school districts (located in Benton County as is NWACC) and $122 per credit hour to students outside the local district.
Northwest Arkansas is generally considered a solid economic region: The college grew even when the economy was strong, which is more of a reflection on the overall growth of the region than any economic influence. Kitchen said the region’s growth has slowed and that, coupled with the stabilizing economy, has contributed to NWACC’s enrollment drop.
What both colleges are committed to in earnest is student retention. With fewer students enrolling, officials said it is more important to keep them in class.
“That certainly is a concern when we have a huge drop in enrollment,” Harkey said.
Kitchen said NWACC tries to provide support throughout the gantlet of the college experience. Many community college students are returning students, meaning they are returning to school after years, and perhaps decades, away so they may need some guidance to make the transition back to a classroom.
Kitchen said students fresh out of high school often need help, too.
“It doesn’t matter if that new student is 18 or if that new student is 48, the concept is crawl, walk, run,” Kitchen said. “We want to get you in, introduce you to the college experience, help you develop good study habits, introduce you to a tutor, set you up with an academic adviser to build a success plan. We try to provide as much guidance on the front end as possible.”
The guidance helps colleges two ways, officials at both schools said. Students in school have better success so they stay enrolled, and then they tell friends and family about their positive experience with the college.
“I think ... the success of students who had attended the community college, is the best way to [advertise],” Kitchen said. “We’re really pretty integrated so we’re in the schools, on the Internet, Facebook, all the social media mediums. We want to demonstrate as best as possible how relevant the community college educational system is.”
Neither Kitchen nor Harkey had an enrollment number that represented danger for his or her college.
“One of the unique benefits of the community college setting is we are very nimble and very fluid,” Kitchen said. “We can accommodate either growth or retraction. There is no great sense of anxiety. Right now, we don’t feel like we’re in dire straits.”