After years of growth, enrollment drops at community colleges

Enrollment is down this fall at the state’s community colleges following 13 years of steady growth, and school officials say a lack of money to provide all the course offerings students want and need is likely contributing to the decline.

“When resources dwindle, so does the ability of the community colleges to continue to grow,” said Mary Anne Cox, assistant chancellor of the system, which has the equivalent of 33,301 full-time students enrolled at 12 campuses. “As an open door institution, our mission is to grow. That mission supports the economic development of the state.”

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Community college officials have said their approach to making up for a $9.4 million reduction in state funding for the current school year has been to limit the number of courses available to students and increasing class sizes.

Michael P. Meotti, executive vice president of the Board of Regents that oversees the community colleges, said in addition to problems of course availability, the economic downturn also is leaving fewer prospective students’ being able to afford college and more having to go to work instead of school.

“The enrollment surges and booms have been going on for years… We knew that it would eventually slow because of several reasons,” he said, also noting the number of college-age students is also starting to decline. “Yes, there is a decline after years of surges, but enrollment is still more than it was just a few years ago.”

Over the last 13 years, enrollment at the community colleges has climbed by almost 80 percent, and officials have been warning that without attendant increases in state funding the growth would be unsustainable. Earlier this year, several members of the Board of Trustees for the system said the fiscal crisis facing the colleges is hindering their ability to provide a college education to every student who wants one.

This year the community colleges have 20,302 full-time and 37,376 part-time students; together they make up the equivalent of 33,301 full-time students–more than either the University of Connecticut or the Connecticut State University System.

Connecticut’s community colleges aren’t the only ones seeing declines in enrollment: Community colleges in Maine, New Jersey and Texas have all experienced decreases this year, said David Baime, the senior vice president of the American Association of Community Colleges.

“Declines are being experience in a number of places. That’s a little bit of a mystery to us because we believe the large increases in enrollment in recent years was because of the down economy, but the economy hasn’t improved yet,” he said. “Now more than ever, these colleges are important in getting people ready for when these jobs do begin opening up.”

Sen. Beth Bye, the co-chairwoman of the legislature’s Higher Education Committee, said the decline in enrollment is troubling and hopes the numbers increase next semester.

“I think it’s important for the public to understand when we make [budget] cuts there’s a real impact. This is it,” she said.

Quinebaug Valley Community College President Ross Tomlin said because of the budget cuts his school faced, the decision was made to cut part-time teaching positions by 5 percent and offer 10 percent fewer courses. Christine Japely, an English professor at Norwalk Community College, said many of the English class sizes at her school have increased by 50 percent.

Cox said similar situations are taking place at all 12 of the community college campuses.

“As students show up on campus to register they could find some of their courses are not available,” she said.

That was the case for Kysha Pacheco, a single mother and first-year student at Capital Community College who had trouble finding courses compatible with her full-time work schedule.

“It came down to me just registering for whatever ended up being available. This could really cause a problem for me next semester when I don’t have as much flexibility in the classes I need to take,” said Pacheco, who hopes to become a social worker. In the end, she decided school was too important and rearranged her work and personal schedule to fit class availability.

In addition to the impact of the state cuts, this decline in enrollment will also mean less tuition revenue that the schools were counting on.

At Quinebaug, that shortfall in tuition revenue means Tomlin will have to cut another $100,000 if enrollment doesn’t increase significantly next semester.

“We planned on flat enrollment, so we are really under the gun now with a nearly 10 percent drop. That just adds to our deficit,” he said.