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CMU seeks to recruit non-traditional students

You’ve undoubtedly heard the phrase, “Turnabout is fair play.” Some Michigan community colleges have dabbled in offering bachelor’s degrees. Now Central Michigan University says it will move into lifelong learning and skilled trades education to better serve non-traditional students.

According to a presentation by CMU president Dr. Robert Davies, CMU cannot afford to focus exclusively on programs for traditional aged college students any longer. To meet the needs of non-traditional students, CMU says it will offer more online courses, courses with flexible hours and starting times, as well as course formats that appeal to working adults.

CMU has been hit hard by enrollment losses. The university’s graduate and undergraduate enrollments peaked in 2010 and has declined by one-third since then. Among all Michigan public four-year universities, Central Michigan has experienced the fourth-largest enrollment loss. (Closer to home, Eastern Michigan University has experienced the second-largest enrollment loss among Michigan’s four-year universities.)

Rebuilding enrollment and reaching into new student populations is a core part of the university’s new strategic plan. Those new student populations that CMU hopes to open up exactly overlap the student populations that community colleges have traditionally served.

Central Michigan (the region, not the university) does not lack community colleges. CMU is not offering a form of education that non-traditional students in the middle of the state can’t get right now. Delta College, Mid Michigan College, Lansing Community College, and Montcalm Community College are all less than an hour away from CMU.

CMU’s new strategic plan calls for it to compete against community colleges by providing the same hands-on learning experiences to the same non-traditional student market. According to Davies, the university will also provide rapid-completion degree programs that will enable students to complete degrees flexibly and quickly, while enabling them to work and manage their family responsibilities.

Regional universities may offer more competition for non-traditional students

This should worry community colleges that are near those regional Michigan universities whose enrollments have cratered. (Like Eastern Michigan University, for example.) According to EMU’s strategic plan, it will intentionally not seek a higher research classification than it currently has (R2). Instead, it will focus on improving the quality of its research programs. This is significant because many institutions turn to research grants to both increase their revenues and offset their faculty costs. EMU will not attempt to increase its institutional visibility in research, so it will need to find other ways to attract students.

If EMU comes looking for non-traditional students, how will WCC – which has spent significant time and money developing non-degree certificate programs – fare?

Community colleges should not comfort themselves with the idea that the cost of a four-year university will deter non-traditional students from selecting them. Non-traditional students have demonstrated that they will select the institutions that provide the most flexibility, the fastest delivery, and the most support. (They’ll even enroll in private, for-profit institutions if they can get the programs and class schedules they need – despite their exorbitant cost.)

Community colleges will need to learn to compete to hang on to their non-traditional students because CMU has just demonstrated that – ready or not – competition for them is coming.

Photo Credit: Newman University , via Flickr