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SIC a bright spot as community college enrollments continue to drop

  • Construction has begun on the Ella Elizabeth Hise Museum of Regional Art at Southeastern Illinois College. SIC officials say the museum, funded entirely by a private donation, will add to the educational opportunities the college provides.

    Construction has begun on the Ella Elizabeth Hise Museum of Regional Art at Southeastern Illinois College. SIC officials say the museum, funded entirely by a private donation, will add to the educational opportunities the college provides.

By Chanda Green
Contributing Writer
updated: 8/1/2018 9:58 AM

SOUTHERN ILLINOIS -- The statistics are in and the facts are evident: Community colleges in Southern Illinois and across the nation are experiencing a significant and long-term enrollment decline.

Numbers from the Illinois Board of Higher Education show that from 2012 to 2016, John A. Logan's head count fell 41 percent; Rend Lake College, 35 percent; and Shawnee Community College and Southeastern Illinois College, 13 percent each.

The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported that this spring, overall postsecondary enrollments decreased 1.3 percent from the previous spring. For two-year public institutions, enrollment was down 2 percent across the nation.

But at John A Logan, the 10th day head count for spring 2018 was 19.6 percent lower than spring 2017, and total credit hours dropped 4 percent.

"A large portion of this drop was in the continuing education area, which no longer enrolls credit students, and in the Center for Business and Industry, which lost many credit courses," explained Eric Pulley, director of institutional research at Logan.

President Ron House called the "revamping and changing" of these courses as an ongoing process.

"It's been happening for well over a year and will continue for probably another year or so," he said. "Our courses had not been reviewed for many years, so it was time.

Pulley argues that head counts in the transfer and career areas of the college "provide a more accurate reflection of enrollment trends" because they enroll the more traditional-type of college student, one that carries a full-time load of about 12 credit hours, and because they represent about 94.2 percent of total enrollment.

"When looking solely at the transfer and career areas of the college, the total head count drop and the total credit hour drop was only 3.6 percent each," he said.

While John A. Logan's enrollment decline is markedly steeper than other Southern Illinois community colleges, the spring numbers across the region paint a pretty negative picture.

At Rend Lake College, the unduplicated head count for spring 2018 was down 17 percent from 2017, and total credit hours dropped seven percent.

"Like most colleges and universities across the state, our enrollment is seeing the same decreases," said ReAnne Palmer, Rend Lake College public information officer. "Despite what's happening in Illinois, we're continuing to give our students the best education and services we can."

At Shawnee College, enrollment dropped 15 percent from spring 2017 to spring 2018. Credit hours in the same time period dropped 3 percent.

"The enrollment at Shawnee has seen a consistent decline over the past 10 years for many reasons," President Peggy Bradford said. "There are some other factors to be considered; declining population, limited online courses and degrees, and failure to offer classes in areas students desire to enroll in or during times when students wish to attend classes.

"The good news is that we are currently increasing our opportunities for offering online courses and degrees, dual credit courses, new programs in Career Technology and Education and transferable degree offerings," she said. "We expect to reverse this trend by providing these additional options for our students."

At Southeastern Illinois college, head count fell seven percent from spring 2017 to spring 2018, and credit hours fell eight percent.

"Last spring, like most community colleges, SIC saw a decline in enrollment," said Gina Sirach, executive dean of academic services. "For SIC, the main reason is that our high schools are smaller, as they are in much of the region and Midwest. Our freshman class of two years ago was very small and they are cycling through as sophomores. Also, given that the recession is over and more people are working, we have fewer returning students."

There are a number of reasons for this nationwide enrollment decline at community colleges. Illinois education officials blame higher tuition costs, less state funding (but more state pressure to improve), and more potential students working instead of enrolling.

Those in support of laying at least some of the blame on the state cite the numbers. State funding fell 36.9 percent from 2008 to 2017, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. That's the nation's third highest reduction in state education funding. Only Arizona, at 53.8 percent less, and Louisiana at 43.9 percent were worse.

Many believe that when unemployment is low and jobs are easier to find, more adults choose earning over learning. That belief is supported by data from Inside Higher Ed that shows two-year colleges have been coping with declining enrollments since 2009, when the Great Recession ended and the national unemployment rate began falling from about 10 percent to about four percent today.

The Educational Advisory Board cites two trends: fewer adult learners age 25 and older and the declining number of high school graduates as reasons for enrollment decline. The Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education takes that last reason a few years further, projecting the number of U.S. high school graduates to dramatically decrease by about half-a-million after 2025, from 3.5 million per year to about three million.

Part of the reason for this anticipated precipitous enrollment decline, according to experts, is because of low birthrates during the Great Recession (December 2007 through June 2009), which translate into fewer 18- to 22-year-olds, the traditional age of college students, starting in 2025.

Another reason, according to the EAB, is the failure of community colleges to retain students. The board found that out of every 100 students who apply to a two-year college, an average of 56 are lost before classes begin -- when students are dealing with paperwork, placement testing, orientation and registration -- 23 drop out, and only five are still enrolled after six years. Only nine out of 100 complete an associate degree and only seven, a bachelor's degree.

Meanwhile, back in Southern Illinois, the enrollment decline continued this summer.

John A. Logan College's total 10th Day head count for summer was down 26 percent from summer 2017, and total credit hours decreased by seven percent. But if you only use numbers from the transfer and career areas of Logan -- as the director of institutional research at Logan directs -- the numbers improve exponentially, to a head count drop of only five percent, and a credit hour drop of only three percent.

At Rend Lake College this summer, the 10th Day unduplicated head count was .9 percent higher than summer 2017, while total credit hours decreased six percent.

Rob Betts, director of communications at Shawnee Community College said that "10th Day numbers were not yet available."

Southeastern is the single bright spot, once again, in an otherwise dark picture. SIC's head count for summer 2018 is 892, down only 6 students or 0.7 percent (statistically flat) from 898 in 2017, and credits are down only 17 or 0.6 percent (statistically flat).

"This summer's enrollment trend shows flat credit hours and head count, which is a good indicator given numbers are still down in the state and Midwest, for the most part," Sirach said.

Angela Wilson, SIC's executive director of marketing and public relations, said that Southeastern has implemented a number of initiatives in response to recent lower enrollment, including "creating some new programs with jobs of interest available in the area," such as Biotechnology, and Veterinarian's Assistant and Massage Therapy, (both shared programs with Rend Lake College). Plans include adding a PowerSports Technology program this fall and a Taxidermy Certificate (for all those hunting enthusiasts) coming next year.

SIC has also started recruiting from out-of-state counties along the Illinois border; has increased scholarships; has started competitive team offerings including 3-D and indoor archery and bowling; and has expanded services for student retention, including a new early warning system if a student is struggling academically.

"SIC maintains a strong full-time instructor to student ratio (16:1) and enhances one-on-one contact for stronger retention efforts," Wilson said. "Additionally, we are looking into more dual-credit partnerships with high schools both in our district and in border-county areas.

"With a stable state budget now, SIC is planning enhanced student learning spaces, including a redesign of our library, media services and online support areas, and our Student Success Center into one flowing 'learning commons' area to appeal to student needs and increase support for them," she said. "This also includes an upgraded anatomy and physiology lab.

"Additionally, a 100 percent donor-funded regional museum of art is currently under construction, increasing our offerings in the Humanities division, and increasing our appeal and services to the communities we serve, from a cultural standpoint."

"At John A. Logan College there are plenty of new ideas, plans, programs and initiatives to combat declining enrollments in the state and nation," House, the JALC president, said. They include growing dual-credit programs, expanding online course offerings, expanding popular programs and adding new ones, and adopting a career exploration software, MajorClarity, for high school students.

House also said that the college is working on an enrollment management plan, "one that will help each student set clear goals and objectives and apply measures to ensure continued growth."

Sources: estimate-spring2018/ research/state-budget-and-tax/a-lost-decade-in-higher- education-funding