See correction below.
After several years of unprecedented growth, Monroe Community College's enrollment is flat this fall. At Finger Lakes Community College and Genesee Community College, enrollment also is level or down slightly.
Yet with difficult economic circumstances and a smaller pool of potential students, officials at the area's three community colleges say it is a success just to hold the line. In addition, they voice optimism that a growing need to fill "middle-skills" jobs and an influx of returning veterans will send more students their way.
"We're looking at flat enrollment, but quite frankly we're pleased with that," said Anne Kress, MCC president. "We think we've found a settling point post-recession."
The recession was a boon for the colleges, MCC in particular. Unemployed workers or those looking for credentials to improve employment enrolled in record numbers, giving the college its highest enrollment levels ever.
MCC officials saw the leveling off of enrollment coming. In an annual report released earlier this year, the college noted that enrollment goals had been met and it would now turn the focus to raising academic performance, Kress noted.
FLCC's total enrollment declined to 5,137 this year, down 1.9 percent from 5,235 a year ago. New students, which for now are measured in full-time equivalents, total 755. College officials noted that a head count for new students will not be available for several more weeks.
The decrease came as no surprise to officials at FLCC, which also had seen record enrollment increases in recent years but now is up against the same demographic shift facing MCC.
"That drop-off was what we expected due to demographic changes, especially at high schools around the area," said Lenore Friend, FLCC spokeswoman. "We had tremendous growth from 2006-2007 to 2010-2011, and we knew that a leveling off was coming. FLCC was probably the fastest-growing of all 30 community colleges in New York during that period in terms of credit hours."
FLCC enrollment numbers still will rise this year, Friend noted. A large portion of the college's enrollment-close to 1,500 students-will come through the Gemini program, which offers concurrent enrollment for eligible high school students.
"That's one of the biggest portions of our enrollment, and that's true of most community colleges as well," Friend said.
GCC, which this year saw total enrollment fall to 4,871 from 4,965 a year ago, also expects the number to rise as accelerated enrollment is added. The college expects enrollment to reach to 7,100 to 7,200 later in the semester.
The number of incoming students declined to 1,223 this year from 1,307 last year, and transfers fell to 458 from 508. GCC enrollment has been affected by other factors besides the decrease in local high school graduates.
"We've seen enrollment in teacher education programs drop as the number of teaching positions has fallen off," said Virginia Taylor, GCC vice president for student and enrollment services. "There's been a lot on the news about teacher layoffs and how those positions have gone away, and it's now starting to affect us."
The college is responding by reformatting programs to emphasize related fields where an associate's degree could be beneficial, like women's and children's programs, Taylor said.
Even in the face of unfavorable demographic shifts and challenged programs, community college officials see reasons for optimism.
Though enrollment was flat, MCC did see growth in some important areas, Kress noted. The Damon City Campus had a surprisingly large enrollment increase-50 percent higher than officials had expected.
The increase gives MCC an opportunity to make a stronger case for a new downtown campus, Kress noted.
"That growth enhances the mission that the downtown campus is beneficial, and that there is more interest in students coming to us," she said, adding that the campus serves as a gateway to the college for city residents.
"All along we've been stressing our vision of what the downtown campus can do for access to education and access to jobs in the new economy," Kress said. "We definitely think that demand for the downtown campus helps that case and goes to show that so many students see that as their gateway to MCC."
MCC also saw an increase in returning students, those who had been enrolled in classes at some point before the spring semester but left for various reasons. Kress thinks that increase was connected to the college's mission to fill what are known as middle-skills jobs, those that require more than a high school diploma but less than a four-year degree.
"We think students are starting to get the message that they need a college credential if they want employment in the new economy," Kress said.
That trend could continue as more students pursue the degrees and work certificates needed to fill these jobs, Kress said. A report last year noted that these middle-skills jobs account for nearly half of all jobs in the state, and that number is expected to increase as the recession ends.
Kress pointed to another report, released this week by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, for evidence that enrollment could grow to fill middle-skills jobs.
The report noted that in the last year, a quarter of young high school graduates were unemployed and more than half were underemployed. For these graduates, wages fell by 12 percent to $19,400 in 2011, below the poverty threshold for a family of four.
"As jobs that require only high school or less have disappeared, postsecondary education and training on the job and in schools have become the gateways to the middle class," the report noted. "Most postsecondary education and training discussions focus on the baccalaureate pathway, but there has been an increasing interest in so-called 'middle jobs.'"
The report also details the five main routes expected to bring more workers into these middle-skills jobs: employer-based training, industry-based certifications, apprenticeships, postsecondary certificates and associate degrees.
MCC is using its resources to better reach potential students, Kress noted. This year it rolled out an online database known as Career Coach that guides career choices for potential students by offering information on salaries, demographics, growth potential and the necessary education for a range of jobs.
Career Coach is seen as an important tool both for bringing in new students and for meeting local workforce development needs, but it is not the only effort MCC has planned to reach these students. Later this school year it will partner with local groups including the Office of Adult & Career Education Services in the Rochester City School District to offer one-credit exploration courses for potential students who are older or need help learning how to get back into college.
FLCC also is crafting programs to accommodate students looking to fill middle-skills jobs. The college has seen strong enrollment in its online programs, Friend said, and now has developed a hybrid program that allows students to do some work online but still come to campus.
"This combines in-seat classes at the college with online courses, so students aren't totally on their own," said Friend, who noted that FLCC online enrollment is up 15 percent from last fall. "Some people still need that face-to-face contact so they can work with study groups or talk to professors. This is especially true for older students who still need a real environment and might find online courses difficult at first."
The program allows them to attend one evening course a week while completing other course work online, making it a convenient setup for those who work or have children, Friend said.
"As the economy continues to move away from low-skill jobs toward middle-skills jobs, the newest programs will need to meet the need for these jobs and do it in different ways than before," she noted.
Another opportunity lies ahead with returning veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Friend noted. The Veterans Retraining Assistance Program, passed in 2011, offers up to 12 months of training assistance to unemployed veterans and includes aid for housing and tuition.
"We do have some students who have qualified for this, and it's made it easier for them to enroll by avoiding borrowing," Friend said.
FLCC is working with veterans groups and the Department of Veterans Affairs to develop programs that accommodate this population, she noted.
GCC has not seen a wave of returning veterans but anticipates it.
"We haven't seen a significant increase in veterans yet, but it is coming and will be a big benefit to us, especially for programs that align well with veteran training," Taylor said.
While facing enrollment challenges, community colleges also have a competitive advantage, said Richard Ensman, director of development and external affairs at GCC.
"When we talk about competition, this is the age of the community college," he said. "From a tuition standpoint we come out ahead, and as gas costs increase we'll also continue to get commuters who see us as a better option."
9/21/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction that appeared in Sept. 28, 2012 edition:
Enrollment of new students at Monroe Community College's Damon City Campus has exceeded expectations for this year but has not increased, President Anne Kress said. An article in the Sept. 21 edition incorrectly characterized the enrollment.