Iowa community college enrollment continues to drop

Kirkwood among those with more students this fall

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Combined enrollment for Iowa’s 15 community colleges continued to slip this fall, although a handful of institutions bucked the trend — including Cedar Rapids-based Kirkwood Community College, which welcomed nearly 4 percent more students.

But total numbers, according to a new report out of the Iowa Department of Education, dipped .6 percent to 93,072 this fall, from 93,772 last fall. The drop follows a .5 percent decrease last fall and a 6.3 percent slide the year before that.

Community college officials said they’ve been losing numbers since enrollment surged following the 2008 recession. In 2010, for example, total enrollment neared 106,600, according state reports.

Iowa’s community college campuses expected a leveling off following that swell, but some officials said they think numbers have bottomed out, and they’d like to see them go up.

And Kirkwood is among those seeing a shift, following a nearly 8 percent enrollment drop in fall 2013 and another 7 percent drop last fall. Kirkwood’s 2015 enrollment, reported by the Department of Education, was 14,814 — nearly 4 percent above last fall’s 14,268.

Only Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa, which has a much smaller enrollment of 4,773, saw a bigger increase this fall of 8.2 percent, according to the state report.

Doug Bannon, dean of admissions and student life for Kirkwood, credits the enrollment bump — in part — to growing attention on the value of a community college education and rising concern around student debt.

“Parents are finding out it’s important to not be in college debt for a long time,” Bannon said.

For the growing number of students coming out of high school “truly undecided” about which career path they want to follow, Bannon said, the community college route makes a lot of sense.

“I have had more students being more honest about the fact that they don’t know what they want to do instead of making up something that sounds good,” he said. “And, with us having more than 120 majors, it gives them an opportunity to look at the different programs.”

Kirkwood also has focused on recruiting and better articulating the services it offers and the faculty it employs. Its campus visit days this fall have been consistently filled, Bannon said. One scheduled for today had to be closed after reaching capacity.

“More people are coming to look at the Kirkwood campus this fall than in the past couple of years,” he said. “It’s a good feeling right now.”

Although community college enrollment has been on a roller coaster of late, its general trend has been upward — increasing more than 10 times since 1965, according to the state report. Today’s students, however, look significantly different than they did 50 years ago, with many taking online courses, combining high school and college schedules, and going part time to accommodate work or family commitments.

In fact, the percentage of full-time students at Iowa’s community colleges has dropped dramatically, from more than 90 percent in 1965 to about 40 percent this year.

Rob Denson, president of Des Moines Area Community College, credited student desire to balance continuing education with work or family commitments for the rise in part-timers. But, Denson said, he would prefer students stay as close to full time as possible — for their benefit.

“We try to help students be at least half time,” he said. “And the closer to full time they can be, the sooner they can graduate” and move toward a four-year degree or full-time employment.

DMACC provides scholarships and financial aid to encourage larger course loads, and every student must take a one-credit course focused on student success, Denson said. That course requires students to map out a curriculum plan, develop a financial schedule, and pick a major.

“We decided to do it because we have seen students, and they have too much going on,” Denson said.

DMACC, Iowa’s largest community college, was among those that saw enrollment decreases in 2015, according to the state’s point-in-time report. After experiencing a nearly 17 percent spike last fall, DMACC’s enrollment, according to the state, dropped about 5.2 percent to 22,298 this fall.

One area the state report showed widespread growth, at nine of the 15 community colleges, was in online enrollment. Overall online numbers increased 2.6 percent to 28,166. DMACC saw its online enrollment grow 2.5 percent, and Kirkwood saw a 24 percent spike — the biggest in the state.

But Denson said he doesn’t put much weight in the state numbers and instead uses DMACC’s annual unduplicated student counts for reference. Those numbers include every student who takes a credit class at the college during the year, including high school students, online students, and those who transfer after one term or one course.

DMACC’s numbers report enrollment at 37,000-some, but Denson said neither its enrollment numbers nor the state’s figures determine how much money it gets from the Legislature. Community colleges, rather, use a funding formula that weighs property tax bases and other factors.

“We came together and created a formula so that all community colleges could be viable, and the smaller ones would get a little more,” he said.

Looking forward, both DMACC and Kirkwood officials said they aim to be, above all else, accessible to anyone looking to benefit from the type of education they offer. They want to work with high schools, regent institutions, and area businesses to help students succeed while also bolstering Iowa’s economy.

And, to that end, the community colleges would like to enroll more students.

“We always like to see when our numbers continue to grow,” Bannon, with Kirkwood, said. “That is always our model and thrust.”

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