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Increasing community college enrollment is NWACC’s focus

I ran across a discussion today that I haven’t seen for a while: how to grow community college enrollment. Nationally, enrollment in two-year schools is down by 15%. That translates into millions of students nationwide who aren’t sitting in community college classrooms right now.

Although the decline in enrollment happened co-incidentally with the arrival of the pandemic, some people believe that the enrollment decline would have happened regardless of the state of public health. Community college enrollment peaked during the Great Recession, and unfortunately, that period is a popular (if unfair) point of comparison.

While there has been a lot of hand-wringing about the decline in enrollment in the nation’s two-year schools, few people are addressing the other side of the issue: how to raise enrollment to pre-pandemic levels.

Northwest Arkansas Community College knows who’s missing from its classrooms: first-generation, low-income college students. The administration there also knows the challenges these students face: lack of childcare, Internet access, and technology. In the absence of the right tools, NWACC students were trying to complete coursework on their mobile phones.

At the same time, some students who might originally have enrolled at NWACC enrolled at a four-year institution instead. In Arkansas, community college enrollment dropped by 13%, while enrollment at the state’s four-year schools dropped by a more modest 5%. Prospective students took full advantage of most universities’ decisions to drop their SAT or ACT test requirement for admission. Student’s who’d earned a less-than-stellar score on one of these standardized tests no longer had to worry about remediating their application package by supplying proof that they could manage college-level courses.

Community college enrollment: making it happen

In an article in the Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette, Ricky Tompkins, the NWACC Vice President of Learning said: “We have lost those people who need us the most.” … “We are going to have to make a concerted effort to get them back.”

Regardless of why it happened, community college enrollment has dropped. The discussion of how to reverse that has been rather quiet. (It’s almost as though community college administrators don’t have strategies for returning their institutions’ enrollment to its pre-pandemic level.)

NWACC is having those discussions. What’s more interesting is that NWACC is looking for a new president. Their current CEO, Dr. Evelyn Jorgenson, will retire at the end of June. Not knowing who will lead NWACC is not stopping the institution from developing a plan to reverse its declining enrollment. (Somehow, NWACC manages to scrape by with just four vice presidents.)

If you’re looking for a size comparison, NWACC enrolled 7,000 students in the fall semester, so it’s slightly smaller than WCC. It’s also located in Bentonville, AR, home of WalMart, so it has some resources available to it.

I have little doubt that NWACC will pull its enrollment back up as long as the faculty and staff remain engaged with that goal. I also have little doubt that administrators who wait for their community college enrollment to rise again will still be wondering where their students are a year or two from now.

Community colleges that want their students back need to start asking questions about how to make that happen.

Photo Credit: Kevin , via Flickr