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Area community college enrollment spikes mirror national trends

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 21, 2009 - Anecdotal reports throughout the fall had community college enrollments rising fast, in large part because of the schools’ comparatively low costs and focus on workforce training. Turns out those early indications were correct.

A survey from the American Association of Community Colleges shows that the number of students nationwide who enrolled in credit courses at two-year colleges this fall increased by 11.4 percent from fall 2008 and 16.9 percent from fall 2007. Full-time enrollment rose 24.1 percent from fall 2007 to fall 2009.

While some of the biggest two-year spikes occurred in other parts of the country, the plains region (which includes Missouri) saw an 18 percent increase in full-time students and a 14 percent increase for part-time students.

St. Louis Community College has seen a large increase in enrollment across its campuses. Fall 2009 enrollment was 28,019, up from 25,111 a year ago, 24,567 two years ago and 24,562 in 2006. Each campus saw an increase this fall of at least several hundred students. (Numbers are typically down in the spring because of students who drop out or stop out.) Digging into the data even further, about 12,000 of the 28,000-plus people taking courses this fall at SLCC are full-time students and 15,999 are part-timers.

The AACC report noted that much of the growth this fall came from full-time students at community colleges. The SLCC data, however, show that the growth has been across the board -– in each of the past four falls full-time students accounted for roughly 43 percent of all students.

Pat Matreci, a spokeswoman for the college, said the enrollment boost is likely due to a combination of factors: students in an economic downturn who are paying greater attention to tuition costs, people who are seeking job retraining and working adults who are trying to fit classes into their schedule. 

“We’ve gotten a lot of students looking for job training and thinking about career changes,” Matreci said. “The economy is certainly a big factor in that.”

The college is close to or at capacity in many of its health-care programs. There’s a waiting list for nursing students, for instance. Information technology training has also proven popular. “It’s no secret these are the areas where the jobs are now,” Matreci said.

She added that the college is making a push to attract people between 26 and 40 who have no prior college experience. SLCC has already made a dent into that population but is continuing outreach.

At Southwestern Illinois College, enrollment has crept up slightly this fall (from 16,342 in fall 2008 to the current 16,510). Part-time students continue to make up about two-thirds of the student body.  

At St. Charles Community College, the head count has gone from 7,027 in fall 2007 to 7,414 last year to 7,911 in fall 2009. This fall, just over half of those students are full time, a number that's been consistent over the last few years, according to Michael Banks, vice president for academic and student affairs.

Banks said many of the allied health and health occupation programs continue to be pretty much at capacity. The growth in students has tended to be across the board. (At the college, about 85 percent of students are focused on the general arts transfer degree).

"We're starting to top out on available space," Banks said. "At certain times of the day we have no more room for students. We're seeing a difficulty in hiring more faculty, and that's purely a budgetary issue."

The AACC report noted that while colleges are seeing enrollment spikes, some continue to miss out on potential students, including those who don't fill out their financial aid forms early enough. Banks said that is always a challenge but is nothing new this fall.