Community colleges across the state are struggling with falling enrollment figures, and Northwest College is not immune to the trend.
The issue was on the agenda for Monday’s Board of Trustees meeting — and the declining numbers will most likely impact the school’s budget for the coming school year.
“You all know our enrollment doesn’t look good,” NWC President Stefani Hicswa told the board.
Fall 2018 enrollment numbers at NWC showed an unduplicated headcount of 1,524 students, a decline of 10 percent from the previous year. It was also the lowest headcount at Wyoming’s seven community colleges.
Over the past five years, NWC’s unduplicated enrollment has dropped nearly 23 percent, whereas the state as a whole saw a 13 percent drop. In the past decade, the drop was nearly 16 percent for NWC and 11 percent for the state’s community colleges overall.
As for full-time equivalent enrollment — which is the total credit hours taken by all students, divided by a full-time semester load of 12 credit hours — NWC had the equivalent of 1,359 students last year. That was a 12.3 percent drop over the prior year, while Wyoming’s other community colleges saw decreases of a few percentage points.
As NWC enrollment falls, so does revenue from tuition. State funding, meanwhile, is based on average enrollment numbers at all of Wyoming’s community colleges.
At the trustees’ Monday meeting, Hicswa advised the board to “plan for reduced budgets.”
In the last session, legislators extended a small appropriation for employee compensation, but they did not provide additional operating funds for the coming year.
“We are, therefore, in the process of getting input from budget managers and doing analysis to determine what reductions will need to be made,” Hicswa said.
Unfortunately, a shrinking budget may also hurt enrollment in the future: Without the funding to maintain competitive compensation, Hicswa explained, the school might lose good faculty and staff.
The president said she’s buoyed by the quality of new employees NWC has hired this year, but if the budget situation doesn’t improve, she said the school might have trouble retaining employees.
The college begins the budgeting process in May, and so any cuts will not be known for certain until the board approves the official budget in July.
Meanwhile, NWC is taking initiatives to grow its enrollment.
Hicswa said the plan is to capitalize on the college’s tradition of maintaining strong transfer programs — such as their two-year engineering articulation program, which is the only one in the state.
Additionally, NWC leaders want to develop trades programs that reflect solid future employment opportunities in the area, so the programs are sustainable. Recently, the board approved a new criminal justice program in conservation law enforcement and a medical assistant degree program.
There are several other trade and health programs under consideration for expansion.
“We need to look more at being a comprehensive community college,” Hicswa told the board on Monday.
The college also invested in a new marketing campaign, which launched in November. The campaign focuses on NWC’s affordability, student experience and small class sizes.
College administrators also are trying to highlight the quality of the faculty and putting more faces to names. These initiatives will include a faculty showcase event and a career day for high school sophomores. On Friday, the college is holding NWC Experience Day, which aims to give prospective students an inside look at NWC.
At the board meeting, Hicswa talked of avoiding old strategies that may not have the appeal they once held. For example, NWC used to be the only community college that offered student housing, whereas most do now.
Community colleges were developed in the 1930s and 1940s as vocational-technical schools or junior colleges that provided the first two years of study towards a bachelor’s degree. NWC started in the late 1940s as the latter. At the time, it was a branch of the University of Wyoming, but in the ’50s, NWC became a stand-alone college, adding residence halls and athletics.
Hicswa added that an effective strategy for raising enrollment should not be short-term.
“We need to talk farther into the future,” she told the board.
The good news is that, once NWC gets students enrolled, they tend to complete their goals: Retention numbers at NWC are among the highest in the state.
Speaking after the meeting, Hicswa said there are a number of possible causes for the downward enrollment trend. NWC’s own analysis showed strong correlations between the college’s enrollment and employment rates and high school enrollment.
During the recession years of 2009 and 2010, for example, Wyoming community colleges saw record-high enrollment as unemployment rates soared. As unemployment rates fell, enrollment numbers have steadily declined.
With local high school enrollment numbers, there was a positive correlation: As the number of area high schoolers fell, so did NWC’s enrollment figures.
“We are encouraged to see that Powell High School numbers are trending up. That bodes well for our enrollment in the future,” Hicswa noted.
There’s also a trend toward some students skipping community college to go straight to four-year schools. They are taking concurrent credits in high school, finishing some freshman-year studies while getting their high school diplomas, and then going straight into the universities.
“In addition to these factors, [the University of Wyoming] did a great job with their new marketing campaign and scholarships this past year,” Hicswa said.
Hicswa was at a national community college meeting this week, where a discussion was held on how more high school students are choosing not to go to college at all. Hicswa said she would need to look into the trend further, but suggested it may also be contributing to the declining numbers at NWC.