GLENWOOD SPRINGS — Colorado Mountain College, which offers two-year degrees, four-year degrees and continuing education courses to students in nine counties throughout the Colorado Rockies, was down to 20,400 students last year, according to a head count provided by the school.
That was 1,200 fewer students than the school had in the 2003-04 academic year, and nearly 5,000 fewer than were enrolled in 2009-10, which was just as the effects of the recession of 2008-09 began making themselves felt nationally and internationally.
But during the same 10 years (2003-2013), while the official head count of students in CMC’s classrooms rose rather dramatically through the middle of the decade and then fell steeply, the “full-time equivalent” number, which reflects the number of students taking a full-time credit load per semester, rose steadily with only periodic, and much less dramatic declines, in the years since the recession began.
Still, said CMC’s community relations officer Deb Crawford, “We’ve generally been following the same trends other colleges have,” although the comparison of FTE students with the head count is an indication that “we have fewer students but they’re taking more courses.”
As of Oct. 31, said Crawford, enrollment was up slightly on a collegewide basis, although this fall’s numbers were not available because of the holiday break. Crawford said the slight rise is attributed, in part, to the college recently winning permission to offer four-year degrees as well as the traditional associate, two-year degrees.
“We are unusual,” Crawford said in a recent interview. “We are the only community college in the state that has been allowed to offer these kinds of bachelor’s degrees.”
The school also is unusual, Crawford said, because CMC appears to be either slowly increasing its enrollment or holding fairly steady, while other higher education institutions continue to decline in terms of student numbers. This, she said, is thanks in part to an older student body (the average student age at CMC is 37), and a wide range of non-traditional classes that add to an older student’s depth of knowledge and job prospects.
Plus, she said, the college has been going to public school districts throughout the nine-county district, prior to hiring new teachers or printing up a class schedule, to determine what the schools believe is needed for their graduates.
“They said we want people who are local, and who have experience in the classroom,” Crawford said, which has changed the college district’s approach to, among other things, its planned four-year degree in teacher education. She explained that the CMC teacher education curriculum calls for 1,200 hours of real classroom time prior to graduation, considerably more than is required in more traditional teacher-ed courses.
All of this planning and outreach, Crawford said, along with tuition rates that are the lowest in the state, has contributed to the school’s success at holding enrollment steady and keeping tuition prices at the lowest level in the state. A full, 30-credit-hour year at CMC, according to the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, costs about $1,680, well below any other two-year or four-year institutions in the state.
According to a Dec. 9 story in Community College Week, a magazine serving community, junior and technical colleges, enrollment is falling nationwide, in part because of declines in U.S. high school graduation numbers. This means schools will be “competing for a dwindling number of students” in the coming years, according to the story. The writer, Paul Bradley, reported that high schools in the South and West are not seeing the same kind of student population declines as the rest of the U.S., but gave no specific numbers for high-school enrollments in those regions.
In Iowa’s 15 community colleges, for example, enrollment this fall dropped 3.5 percent, for the third year in a row, according to the story.
In Ohio, according to the report, enrollment in colleges overall dropped nearly 6 percent this year, a trend that begin in 2012, after rapid growth following the financial meltdown in 2008.
At the same time that the school has been experiencing stagnant student numbers, Crawford said, there has been an erosion of the school’s property tax base, which made up 74 percent of its 2012-13 budget of more than $63 million.
For 2013-14, she said, according to school budget documents, spending will fall to an estimated $57 million, due to the ongoing decline in property values districtwide.
“We’ve been anticipating this,” Crawford said. “We’re always trying to project at least a year ahead,” both in terms of expected enrollment and district finances.
As have other community college districts around the country, CMC has been increasing its offerings in “dual enrollments,” in which students in high school can take college-level courses through CMC to get them started on a degree program even before graduation.
“We’re trying to meet changing needs in the community,” Crawford added, describing changes to such programs as English as a Second Language, various continuing education courses and classes designed to offer adults a way to change careers if needed or desired.
Specifically, she said, the school has been conducting an audit on its Internet Technology courses during the past year, seeking ways to modify the program to better meet the needs of students seeking a career in the IT world.
At the same time, Crawford said, the school is working on a strategic plan for the entire college district, with input from advisory committees on each campus.
“Basically, they help to guide us on what employers are looking for, what communities are looking for,” in terms of courses and programs, she said.