Following years of steady increases, enrollment at the state’s largest public college system is down for the fourth consecutive year.
The 4.3 percent decline in enrollment since 2009 at the state’s community colleges and the four Connecticut State Universities translates to nearly 4,200 fewer students.
College officials attribute the drop-off to a number of factors: There are fewer students graduating from high school and state budget cuts have limited the system’s ability to provide all the courses students want and need. Officials say higher tuition rates also may be pricing students out, and the weak economy forces students to attend only part-time so they can work.
“It’s really an issue for some families” to afford tuition or go to school full-time, said Elsa Núñez, the president of Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic.
That was the case for Alex Tettey Jr., a student at Manchester and Capital Community colleges, who is working now that he has exhausted his financial aid.
"I need to work," said the staffer in U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal's office.
The decline in enrollment may worsen an already difficult fiscal situation facing the 16-campus and online college system. The system’s budget depends on flat enrollment this year. But with 1,707 fewer students paying tuition this semester than they did last fall, officials could not yet predict the overall fiscal impact.
“To be determined,” said Gary Holloway, finance committee chairman for the Connecticut Board of Regents for Higher Education.
College officials have largely leaned on tuition and enrollment increases to compensate for state budget cuts. Before enrollment started to decline in 2009, enrollment in the state's public programs had been steadily increasing -- by 20,241 students between 1999 and 2009, a 20 percent increase.
But this upward trend is likely over unless something is done, college officials and those who study the state’s demographics say.
The state's public kindergarten through high school population has decreased by 14,041 students, or 2.4 percent, between 2001 and 2011, the State Department of Education reports.
Orlando Rodriguez, a senior policy fellow with Connecticut Voices for Children who studies the state's demographics, reports that by 2025, K-12 enrollment is expected to drop by another 93,000 students. The Board of Regents has also projected declines. Over the next 20 years, the system estimates there will be 15 percent fewer 20 to 24 year olds in the state, the typical age of a college student. Universities in the Northeast are experiencing the largest declines in high school students graduating each year, reports the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education and the College Board.
“I am very attuned to all of this,” Gregory W. Gray, the CSCU system’s new president, told his board last week.
And for the students who do enroll, some say the cuts in state funding to the system is making it difficult for the colleges to provide the necessary courses, a problem college officials have been citing for years.
“Students just can’t get the classes, or the classes are full,” said Gena Glickman, the president of Manchester Community College, the state’s second largest community college. Full-time enrollment at her college decreased by 0.5 percent since last year.
The declines in enrollment come as the University of Connecticut, the state’s flagship school, prepares to boost enrollment by 30 percent over the next decade. It saw a 21 percent jump in freshman enrollment this year. Through the state's “Next Generation” initiative, new labs and dormitories are being built -- mostly at the school's main campus in Storrs -- to accommodate the larger student population.
Officials at CSCU say they are also discussing ways to boost enrollmentand plan to spend $277,000 this year for help from a consultant.
That consultant is assessing the system’s recruitment communications, determining areas students are interested in studying, comparing costs to attend the schools with other institutions, and “analyzing growth opportunities among traditional and non-traditional” residents, according to an update provided to board members this month.
While a formalized plan remains to be outlined, Board of Regents member Merle Harris, chairwoman of the Academic and Student Affairs Committee, said the goal is to have enrollment spike to 100,000 students over the next few years.
Meanwhile, enrollment continues to fall. Northwestern Connecticut Community College in Winsted has seen the sharpest decline, with 15.4 percent fewer students since 2010. Western Connecticut State University has 8.5 percent fewer students, while Southern has 6.1 percent fewer in that time. Since 2010, Gateway Community College in New Haven is the only institution in the system that has experienced an enrollment increase.
Enrollment history of the Connecticut State College & Universities
Enrollment strategy update from MaGuire consultants (Return here to continue reading.)
Demographic projections from Board of Regents (Return reading here.)Connecticut's changing demographics report (Return reading here.)Enrollment report from the State Department of Education (Return reading here.)
Projections of High School graduates in New England (Return reading here.)