With enrollment at Northwest College down 10 percent from last fall — and more than 30 percent below its peak in almost a decade ago — NWC President Stefani Hicswa announced a “full-court press” on campus to reverse the decline at Monday’s meeting of the board of trustees.
Preliminary figures say this fall’s enrollment at NWC stands at 1,525 students — 169 fewer students than enrolled for the fall 2017 semester. Overall, NWC enrollment has declined eight of the last nine years since peaking at 2,198 students in the fall of 2009.
Hicswa referred to the sum of the factors behind the enrollment decline as a “perfect storm.” That includes: declining graduation rates in area high schools, rising graduation rates at NWC, a general decline in Wyoming community college enrollment, personnel leaving NWC, budget cuts, low unemployment, the proliferation of concurrent enrollment, an increased graduation rate of NWC students and even international students having unease about new federal travel restrictions on certain countries.
“The [decline in] high school population is some of it, [but] it has not declined as much though as what our enrollment would be,” Hicswa said. “We also think that the economy has something to do with the drop. As we look at our budget cuts and how much money we have cut out of marketing, we think that’s catching up to us.”
She noted that the University of Wyoming received some funding from the state Legislature “to focus on their enrollment.”
NWC Trustee John Housel said there might be a correlation between UW’s enrollment increase — the university’s incoming freshman class is the largest ever — and the decrease in enrollment in Wyoming’s community colleges.
“I think the community colleges really need to look at their relationship with the marketing [department] of the University of Wyoming,” Housel said. He later added that Wyoming’s community colleges might need to come together and formulate a marketing campaign of their own.
NWC, meanwhile, has cut back.
Hicswa noted that, after the vice president for student services and a registrar left last year, NWC did not fill the positions and had them absorbed by the residence life director and admissions coordinator, respectively.
“Also, both of our recruiters turned over last year — one in March, which is the time to turn prospects into enrollees, so that was not the best time to leave,” she said.
There also is a strong correlation between the unemployment rate and community college enrollment.
Across the nation, “as unemployment goes down, community college enrollment goes down; as unemployment goes up, community college enrollment goes up,” Hicswa said. “For the most part, Wyoming community colleges follow this trend. For NWC, our statistical analysis shows that there is a strong correlation between enrollment and our regional high school graduation numbers in addition to unemployment. This is due to the fact that NWC’s enrollment is primarily recent high school graduates.”
However, Hicswa and NWC leaders are not conceding the fight to boost enrollment. Hicswa said other state colleges — such as Western Wyoming Community College — have had success expanding their program offerings to include more trades.
NWC leaders are also exploring how to grow adult and non-traditional student enrollment.
“We want adults to know that NWC is an affordable option for retraining or exploring new career options,” Hicswa said. “We know that there is a direct correlation between post-secondary education and income. NWC has excellent programs to improve job skills.”
The president is also hoping to see enrollment rebound among Western Undergraduate Exchange (WUE) students, who come from 15 other western states, and international students.
“We are also looking at our WUE states and looking at what we did before, when WUE numbers were up — and maybe what we’ve cut due to cuts in budgets for marketing and recruiting, and seeing if we can actualize some more students in the WUE states,” Hicswa told the trustees.
As for last year’s drop in international students, that “was part of this ‘perfect storm’ with what was going on nationally [with] our country,” she said. “Some students were afraid to come to our country and some students felt like they were told not to come to our country, regardless if they were from specific countries that weren’t allowed to come in. Muslim students, for example, did not feel welcome in the United States, so they chose not to come here.”
Hicswa mentioned using social media as a recruiting tool while other NWC initiatives include updating its scholarship program to include part-time and adult students, changing its staffing pattern to a Strategic Enrollment Management model and launching a marketing campaign for targeted populations.
One positive to come out of NWC’s longitudinal enrollment report was the college’s graduation rate.
“Last year’s graduation rate was the highest on record for NWC,” Hicswa said.
She said that’s believed to have contributed to the drop in enrollment, as “that’s the [past] sophomores that we’re missing, so that’s a good thing.”
She noted that the college has spent the past five years working to improve student’s success with efforts like first-year experience classes, predictive scheduling and graduation pathways.
“I am thrilled that the work we are doing to support our students in meeting their educational goals is paying off,” Hicswa said.