NEW HAVEN — Enrollment declines at the state’s community colleges and regional universities were greater than expected this fall according to the figures discussed Thursday by the Board of Regents for Higher Education.
“Was it a big disappointment? I think we anticipated a decline, but this was more than we anticipated,” Mark Ojakian, president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities said after Thursday’s board meeting held at Southern Connecticut State University. “This is in line with national trends … The number of high school students year by year continues to decline.”
While the expected decline this year for community colleges was 2.5 to 3 percent, the actual decline of full-time students was 4.7 percent or 1,289 students enrolled full time.
For state universities, the expected decline was 2 to 2.5 percent, while the actual decline in full-time students was 3 percent or 819 students.
Ojakian said, “I think we need to do better in terms of reaching a non-traditional market, especially around adult learners. And that’s one of the efforts we’re going to be undertaking this coming year, working with the vice president for enrollment.”
Alison Buckley was hired as vice president of enrollment management for the 12 community colleges earlier this year.
“This is in line with national trends … The number of high school students year by year continues to decline.” — Mark Ojakian, CSCU president.
Ben Barnes, the CSCU’s chief financial officer, said the decline this fall could mean a revenue loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars, but noted that this is a comparatively small amount of money. The system has revenues of $1.28 billion.
“This is not good,” Barnes said, “but I think the risk to revenues is relatively small … and this could be made up by other revenue.”
He said it may be that spring or summer enrollment will make up for the decline in the fall.
“I don’t think there is any reason to take action now,” Barnes said. “This is an area of weakness, but there are other areas of strength. I think campuses have been doing a good job of managing their costs.”
Barnes said he is hopeful that the situation will “shake out” and that the CSCU system will still be on track with the Board of Regents’ plan to limit the use of reserve funding to $8 million this year.
He did say, however, that fall is usually the semester with the greatest enrollment, but he added that isn’t always necessarily so.
Five of the 12 community colleges had declines in full time enrollment of more than 5 percent, including Manchester Community College with a decline of 8.6 percent or 300 fewer students and Three Rivers Community College with a decline of 7 percent of 161 students.
Tanya Millner, the interim chief executive officer at Manchester Community College, said in a statement that the college is doing “data mining” to better “understand exactly why our numbers are down so significantly.”
“We will enhance our enrollment and retention strategies based on this understanding,” she said.
She said that Manchester, like all community colleges, is facing increasing competition from four-year institutions “that have more resources to offer financial and academic support to the overall declining number of high school graduates in the state.”
“Community colleges lack the visibility among high school counselors to compete with other schools in attracting traditional age college students, so we are also focusing our recruitment efforts on non-traditional age students.”
The only community colleges to see increases were Northwestern Community College, which enrolled 30 more full time students this fall for a 4.2 percent increase; and Quinebaug Valley Community College, which enrolled 17 additional full time students for an increase of 2.2 percent.
The only other CSCU institution with an increase in enrollment was Charter Oak State College, the state’s on-line college, with an increase of 5.3 percent, reflecting 41 additional full time students.
Among the four state universities, enrollment ranged from Central Connecticut State University with the largest percentage decline — 478 students or 5.1 percent — to Western Connecticut State University where enrollment stayed flat.
A debt-free enrollment boost?
Also at Thursday’s meeting, Richard Balducci, chairman of the regent’s finance committee, reviewed the CSCU’s requested technical adjustments to the budget for the year which included funding for debt-free college — a program that legislators say would strengthen enrollment.
The CSCU system is requesting $16.59 million to fund debt-free college for all community college students, as well as $2 million to market the program for next fall and $1.49 million for additional college advisors for the debt-free program.
Last spring, the legislature approved plans for debt-free college for all community colleges students, calling on the governor to consult with the Connecticut Lottery Corporation to determine the feasibility of using revenue from an iLottery as a funding source.
However, as Ojakian has pointed out, the iLottery has yet to be approved by the legislature.
The legislation also requires that the the governor and the legislature allocate alternative resources for the program if the iLottery funds are not available or adequate.
In its request for “expansion items,” the system has also asked for $3.28 million to start up a “guided pathways” program which would provide academic pathways and structure to students’ experiences, along with a $4.96 million increase to hire more advisors and counselors.
Barnes noted that both programs would be expected to strengthen enrollment by retaining students who otherwise might drop out without the guidance.
In response from a request from the Office of Policy and Management to come up with a 1 percent reduction option, Barnes said in an Oct. 2 letter to Melissa McCaw, secretary of OPM, that this would come to $3.2 million for CSCU.
“Such a reduction would be harmful to the progress we are making across the CSCU system,” Barnes wrote, “and we do not recommend that it be implemented.”
Kathleen Megan wrote for more than three decades for the Hartford Courant, covering education in recent years and winning many regional and national awards. She is now covering education and child welfare issues for the Mirror.