Kansas community college enrollment drops

Classes at community colleges in Kansas are less crowded this fall than they were a year ago.

Enrollment has declined by 3.82 percent at the state’s 19 community colleges, a drop of 3,095 students from last fall, according to a report by the Kansas Board of Regents. The total number of students at the colleges was 77,829 when classes started.

Administrators at the colleges said they saw the decline coming.

“We knew the graduation rates in our area were decreasing. That was a piece of it,” said Kimberly Krull, president of Butler Community College, which is down 588 students this fall, a drop of 5.91 percent from last fall. “There’s trends nationwide for decreasing enrollments in community colleges when the economy is on the upswing. So we kind of forecast those things and kept a close eye on them.”

Community colleges nationally and around the state experienced a surge in enrollment during the economic recession as people who lost jobs sought to bolster their education or re-train for a changing jobs market.

Butler went from from 8,500 students in the fall of 2008 to 10,000 in fall of 2009 and 2010, said Jessica Ohman, dean of enrollment management at Butler. Butler’s enrollment this fall is 9,363.

“We grew very quickly in a short period of time,” Ohman said. “Then we’ve noticed it kind of leveled off, and this year tapered back some.”

Hutchinson Community College enjoyed a 60 percent increase in enrollment over the last 10 years, said Ed Berger, its president. This year, enrollment at the college is down, if only slightly. Hutchinson lost only 31 students from last fall, according to the regents’ report, a drop of 0.5 percent. Its enrollment this fall is 6,128.

“I guess I see that as a correction more than anything,” Berger said. “We’re really kind of a barometer for the economy.”

People who are laid off and can’t find employment look for ways to improve their skill sets and marketability, he said. When jobs become available, people return to work.

“Their priority might be to be in the work force to provide for their families rather than be in college,” Ohman said.

Krull said Butler is making a concerted effort to recruit good students and to retain current students.

“Butler does a pretty good job of trying to forecast and plan for these kinds of things,” Krull said.

The board of regents head count is based on the first 20 days of the fall semester. Enrollment may go up as students sign up for a second eight-week schedule and for online courses, she said. Enrollment at community colleges continues throughout fall and spring semesters.

The decline in fall enrollment at Butler isn’t cause for alarm, Krull said.

“If we’d had a 15 or 20 percent drop in enrollment, that would be a little frightening and we’d probably be making some significant budget changes,” she said.

Berger said Hutchinson added new health programs, expanded its nursing program and had good growth in online programs The college also showed a good increase in credit hours, he said.

Carl Heilman, president of Barton Community College in Great Bend, said credit hours are a better indicator of a college’s success than an enrollment head count because credit hours drive revenue. At Barton, credit hours as well as enrollment are up. According to the regents’ report, Barton had the biggest fall enrollment gain in the state. It grew by 635 students, an 11.3 percent hike over last fall. Enrollment at Barton County is 6,252.

Heilman said Barton this fall started a campus at Fort Leavenworth, which expanded its niche military market. Barton also has a campus at Fort Riley and offers online courses for soldiers.

Barton also is taking advantage of a 2012 state law that allows high school juniors and seniors to enroll in career technical education courses at community and technical colleges with reimbursement from the state, he said.

Heilman also praised the commitment of the college’s faculty and staff to grow programs and add students.

The largest decline in the state was at Kansas City Kansas Community College, which lost 911 students from last fall, a 12.77 percent drop to a total 6,575 student population.

Brian Bode, the college’s vice president for financial and administrative services, said the best-case scenario would be that the college hangs on to some of the enrollment it added during the recession, when its number of students soared from 5,800 in 2008 to 7,500 in 2010, a record.

“The surge was a big balloon for us, and now there just isn’t helium flowing to keep the balloon filled,” he said.

Contributing: Kansas City Star