When economy's up, community college numbers dip


Listen to this article

As the economic recovery in Illinois continues, enrollment at area community colleges has declined slightly.

As a result of the recession that began in late 2008, enrollment at Danville Area Community College and Parkland College in Champaign peaked around fall 2009 and spring 2010, according to school admissions officials. Since then, enrollments have backed off their highs.

"Community college enrollments can be a bit unpredictable. The general trend is when we see unemployment rates going up, enrollments tend to go up as well. When more people find work, enrollments at community colleges can go down. That's what DACC has generally experienced over time," said Dave Kietzmann, vice president instruction and student services at Danville Area Community College.

June unemployment rates for Champaign and Vermilion Counties were 8.8 percent and 11.1 percent respectively.

The downturn in enrollments at Parkland and Danville reflects a trend seen statewide. In fiscal year 2012, Illinois had 912,018 students enrolled in credit and non-credit courses in community colleges throughout the state, according to the Illinois Community College Board. Overall enrollment was down about 0.4 percent and full-time equivalent enrollment was at 264,029, down 3.1 percent since fiscal year 2011, according to the most recent data available.

Parkland's "great enrollments" in 2009 and 2010 were "almost completely due to the recession," said Reo Wilhour, director of admissions and enrollment management at Parkland.

"I think parents were keeping kids closer to home to conserve on tuition and fees and living and travel expenses," he said. Students who normally would have gone directly to Southern Illinois University, Northern Illinois or Western Illinois were starting their academic careers at Parkland instead.

"Once that situation calmed down, we resumed our regular attendance patterns," Wilhour said.

For the spring semester, the student head count (which includes full-time and part-time students) at Parkland was 9,700, down 1.46 percent from the previous spring. The full-time equivalent (which looks at the total credit hours enrolled, divided by 15) stood at 5,742, down 2.2 percent from the previous spring.

Wilhour said he does not yet have enrollment projections for this fall, but according to registrations received so far, when compared with the same time last summer, enrollment is off by about 6 percent in head count and about 6.7 percent when looking at full-time equivalents.

Due to the enrollment decline, tuition revenue at Parkland was off by $1.37 million in fiscal year ending June 30, 2013. Chief financial officer Chris Randles said the college will likely end the year with a deficit of approximately $256,000 out of a total budget of about $57 million. When planning this fiscal year's budget, which is roughly the same as last year's, officials asked departments to cut 4.5 percent from their discretionary funds.

Assuming the same enrollment levels and mix of in-district and out-of-district students for this year, revenue from tuition and fees at Parkland is projected at $29.8 million, or 52 percent of the operating budget, according to Randles.

To help bring up the enrollment numbers for this fall, Parkland's admissions department has implemented a few projects sooner rather than later, Wilhour said. One of them involves current Parkland students calling students who have applied to Parkland but have not yet gone through the assessment process or registered. The first day of classes for Parkland is Aug. 19.

"They're encouraging (students) to come in early and that it's better to register in later July than later August," Wilhour said. "If classes do not have sufficient numbers, they have to cancel, and then there are fewer options. They may not get a good schedule; that messes with their (work and family) schedule," he said.

It's not uncommon for about half of the applications and registrations to community colleges to come in after July Fourth, Wilhour said.

"What we see now is our current enrollment for fall is level to preregistration numbers same time last year," Kietzmann said. "But it is really a bit early to tell about fall. A lot of the community college students tend to register later. We allow students to register until the classes start," he said.

Like Parkland, the record enrollment years at Danville Area Community College were in 2009 and 2010. Since then enrollments backed off the record highs, but Kietzmann said he believes enrollments remain relatively strong. The bump has passed, and enrollments are levelling out, he said.

"This past academic year, we hit over 70,000 credit hours for the year. That's four years in row we've been over 70,000 credit hours," he said.

In spring 2013 the head count at Danville Area Community College was 5,425, down from 5,867 or about 8 percent; and full-time equivalent enrollment stood at 1,984, down from 2,157, also about 8 percent.

At DACC, Kietzmann said enrollment remains strong in the health programs, as well as the new wind energy technician program. However, the college could use more students in engineering and manufacturing.

At Parkland, enrollment is down in nursing programs, but up in agribusiness management and fine and applied arts, according to Wilhour.

Parkland plans registration 'blitz'

Parkland College will hold a special registration "blitz" in early August to encourage students to register for classes.

From 7:30 to 10:30 a.m. Aug. 5 through Aug. 8, the college will have additional staff on hand to help guide students through the registration process.

As an incentive, the college will have free coffee and refreshments and other incentives to those who come those days.

If a student has less than 30 credit hours, they will have to see an academic adviser, and advisers will be on hand during those hours.

"The goal is to get them in here, get them registered so we have better understanding of which classes they want to take so we keep them open," said college spokeswoman Patty Lehn. The risk is when students wait to register, the classes may not be available, she said.

More information is available by calling admissions at 351-2489.