College enrollment takes a slight dip

Bacterial meningitis vaccine requirements, low unemployment rates and a booming energy economy are just a few factors feeding into an enrollment decline of 299 students for the fall 2012 semester across the Howard College district, officials said.The overall uncertified head count for this semester is 4,553 students, compared to 4,852 for the fall 2011 semester. “We have seen a slight decrease on all of our campuses with the exception of Lamesa,” said College President Dr. Cheryl Sparks. “However, this type of college enrollment decline is not unusual for us when you have a surge in the local economy and many high-paying jobs in the energy sector. Yet we also continue to see students unable to find the funds to pay for college costs at the beginning of the semester.”The Big Spring campus enrollment tallied in at 1,659, a 1 percent decrease from the fall 2011 semester. However, contact hours (the total number of hours students are in classes or labs) were up 1 percent due to students taking more credit hours.The Lamesa campus witnesses a 17 percent increase, adding 20 students for the fall semester, yet its contact hours were down 8 percent because of students taking less credit hours.SouthWest Collegiate School for the Deaf (SWCID) noted a decrease of 26 students from the previous year's historic high at 181.The San Angelo campus, a site of historical growth over the past several semesters, experienced an uncharacteristic decrease of 272 students (9 percent) with numbers tallying at 2,601 for fall 2012, coupled with a 9 percent decrease in contact hours. “For the past several semesters, the San Angelo campus has seen enrollment increases across the board,” said LeAnne Byrd, provost for the San Angelo campus. “We certainly do not like to see the decrease in enrollment but we have identified some contributing factors and anticipate an upswing in the spring 2013 semester.”One reason cited for the decrease at San Angelo is a recent law regarding bacterial meningitis vaccines. The vaccine is now required for any incoming student attending a college campus, with minor exceptions and exclusions. If the vaccine isn’t received more than 10 days before classes start, the student is unable to register. Despite many efforts to educate the public, the law caught some off guard and the students were unable to register for classes, particularly dual-credit public school students.At the same time, available classes at prime times are limited because of a lack of space on the San Angelo campus. Efforts are underway to address that need.All campuses are still seeing a strong dual-credit enrollment (high school students enrolling in college courses), with more and more students and their families taking advantage of the low cost option to get a jump start on college coursework and workforce training, officials said.“Dual credit is a win-win situation for the students and the community,” Sparks said. “It addresses a need for workforce readiness in the communities we serve, and also provides a quality start for high school students pursing further higher education.” While the economy is still significantly focused on the energy boom in Texas, college administrators have been working double-time with regional agencies to meet the growing demand for more skilled workers and new career technical education programs.“We have been further developing our Career Technical Education programs to serve all different levels of students,” Sparks said. “Our traditional and non-traditional students are both finding value in the CTE programs as they are learning skill sets that make them immediately employable.”The enrollment numbers also continue to support HC’s designation as a Hispanic Serving Institution, which allows the college to qualify for certain federal grants such as the Title V grant recently awarded to the institution.“We recently received two significant grants through the Title V system and participated in another grant with Angelo State University,” Sparks said. “Our HSI designation continues to be an important part of who we are as a college and allows us to compete for additional resources during these stringent budget years.”As the state of Texas continues to experience serious budget shortfalls, community colleges will face increased pressure to re-focus efforts on student outcomes and completions in addition to enrollment and contact hours.“Although we face some serious challenges heading into the legislative session in 2013, providing a high quality education to our students is still our number one priority and we will work through the tough times and come out a stronger college on the other side,” Sparks said.