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Clark College in ‘enrollment crisis’

Student numbers decline as county’s economy improves

By , Columbian Education Reporter
Published: June 8, 2016, 8:26pm

Clark College is experiencing a crisis in declining enrollment, President Bob Knight said.

Enrollment decreased 9.8 percent from 2014 to 2015. That’s the equivalent of more than 700 full-time students. But even more sobering is the 32.6 percent enrollment decrease since the 2010-2011 school year, the middle of the Great Recession.

Knight minced no words in explaining the severity of the issue.

“It’s an enrollment crisis, but it’s not a budget crisis right now,” said Knight during a phone interview Tuesday. “If enrollment continues to go down, we’ll have a significant impact on our budget.”

He first used the phrase “enrollment crisis” during a 90-minute Penguin Roundtable last month. “I wanted to get everyone’s attention,” he said Tuesday.

Lower enrollment translates to less tuition money. Noting the steady enrollment decline, Clark officials were proactive and cut more than $2 million from the 2016-17 $60 million operating budget.

Statewide declines

Clark’s decreasing enrollment matches a trend that has plagued the 34 community and technical colleges throughout the state, as well as colleges throughout the nation.

“Enrollment is tied significantly to unemployment,” said Knight. “When unemployment is high, people go back to school to get training and better jobs. It’s a national trend and a local trend.”

Clark’s enrollment surged after the recession took hold of the local economy. That surge lasted a little longer at Clark than the rest of the state’s community college system, said Laura McDowell, director of communications at the Washington State Board for Community & Technical Colleges in Olympia.

“Technical and community colleges are flexible,” McDowell said. “We’re connected to the economy. This is an indication of it.”

She added that after the recession hit in the 2007-2008 school year, enrollment started climbing in 2008-2009, spiked in 2010-2011 and started to dip back down in 2011-2012 as the economy improved.

Clark College’s enrollment decline is average when compared to all of the state’s community and technical colleges. Some schools are experiencing enrollment declines much deeper than Clark’s, said Chato Hazelbaker, Clark College spokesman.

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Despite the decreased enrollment, Clark College’s Running Start enrollment has continued to rapidly increase. It grew by 13.9 percent last year. Running Start is a program that allows eligible high school juniors and seniors to enroll in community colleges without paying tuition, and paying only for books and fees. A high school student enrolled in Running Start can save about $25,000 on two years of tuition at Clark.

For the 2015-16 school year, Clark projects 1,766 Running Start students. It’s among the largest Running Start programs in the state.

Looking ahead

Hazelbaker agreed that the improved economy is a major factor in declining enrollment.

“But we also want to be proactive in looking ahead. What does the community actually need?” Hazelbaker asked.

He said that in response to determining community need, Clark is revamping its culinary program, has just completed a STEM Building, is beefing up its automotive program, advanced manufacturing and added a second baccalaureate degree program.

Will lower enrollments and less funding from the state translate to more cuts in the future?

“We feel confident the initiatives we have now will go forward as planned, but it does affect the budget,” Hazelbaker said. “We are reliant on student tuition. We have had to cut the budget, but we’ve definitely been feeling the effects of this for some time.”

Knight says he’s asked college leaders to consider how to solve declining enrollment.

“We’re taking extra measures to keep the students we have here and to bring in new students,” Knight said.

One of those measures to help students succeed and stay in school is a mandatory class for new students, College 101, which begins summer quarter.

Wanda McNealy, news editor of Clark College’s student newspaper, first reported about the college’s declining enrollment in the June 1 Independent.