East Central College received good news Tuesday in the form of its annual census data, which showed a 2.2 percent drop in enrollment, roughly 2.8 percent better than what the college had expected this fall.
ECC President Dr. Jon Bauer said it’s a promising report for the two-year college that has struggled financially in recent months to balance its budget amid projections of dropping enrollment and state budget cuts.
Bauer said the 2.2 percent drop in credit hours, while better than expected, is not the growth the college needs.
“Obviously we want to see the enrollment numbers climbing, but it is a better picture than we had anticipated in the budget,” he said. “It’s good to see the declines we’ve had are slowing and it’s good to see growth in these specific areas.”
The census data, or the college’s official enrollment tally, showed that currently, 2,897 students are enrolled and taking 27,807 credit hours, compared to 2,966 students last fall who signed up for 28,442 credit hours.
Bauer attributes the better than expected enrollment from the colleges’ new focus on online courses and expanding dual-credit enrollment with area high schools.
“I think we’re seeing growth in our online offerings and also in our dual-credit enrollment,” he said. “We are doing more and we’ve seen growth at high schools. That’s an area we certainly want to do better in and grow”
The administration made enrollment a priority after the college underwent several budgetary cuts from the state with a mid-year withholding and further cuts to the state’s overall higher education budget.
In total, ECC suffered a 9 percent decrease to its state aid for the 2017-2018 fiscal year, which began July 1.
The administration immediately looked to stop the financial bleeding by reducing spending in any place it could. Officials began focusing on increasing its enrollment to remedy the colleges’ suddenly problematic financial situation.
According to Bauer, roughly 36-37 percent of ECC’s revenue comes from tuition, depending on the year. He said when state cuts occur, often that percentage raises.
The college’s board of trustees, at its April meeting, approved a $5 per credit hour increase to tuition across the board — warding off the possibility of a deficit from enrollment being down.
Fewer High School Graduates
The state’s budget cuts, Bauer said, are just one of the many enrollment challenges ahead.
According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which tracks enrollment at high schools nationwide, high school classes in Missouri will have shrunk in size by 1.5 percent over 10 years.
Fewer high school students means fewer students for colleges and universities, said Bauer, who serves on the Missouri Community College Association.
He said if the pool of high school graduates continues to shrink, East Central and colleges like it will struggle to grow enrollment and, because of that, struggle financially.
For five consecutive years, the number of high school students has dropped significantly, according to the annual report. In spring 2017 alone, there were roughly 12,800 fewer graduates in Missouri.
By 2023, Missouri’s high school graduates could shrink by 6 percent. Bauer said those projections have led the college to focus on bolstering online courses and reaching high school students.
“It’s happening throughout Missouri and the midwest. We’re in a demographic cycle that just doesn’t lead to strong growth in enrollment and therefore growth in graduates,” he said. “That’s a major part of our enrollment, recent high school graduates. We have to figure out ways to reach more students who are in high school classes.”
Currently ECC is reforming its strategic focus, a new game plan Bauer said could take the entire academic year to create. He said a main focus of that plan will be to simplify East Central’s currently complex strategic plan.
Within that plan, and outside of it, the college will further develop and bolster its online opportunities and classes, as well as continuing to target students while they are in high school.
“Across the board, community colleges had lower enrollment. Some were down varying amounts and some more severely than this,” Bauer said. “We’re all dealing with the demographic challenge that high school classes aren’t growing, and that is an issue that isn’t going to go away.”