Enrollment trends reflect economy

Higher Education

BY CAROL PROBSTFELD SRQ DAILY SATURDAY PERSPECTIVES EDITION SATURDAY APR 15, 2017

College enrollment trends offer an interesting look at our society. They reflect the economy, unemployment rates, cultural norms and personal preference. Our state and national leaders are focused on getting students through college and into the workforce as quickly as possible. Students are reflecting a different mindset, and at a college like the State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota, those students are typically already in the workforce and pursuing a degree at a pace they chose.

Enrollment at a community or state college is typically inverse to the economy. When the economy is down and unemployment is high, enrollment is up, as we experienced at SCF from 2008 to 2010. If the economy is strong and unemployment numbers are low, our enrollment decreases. From 2010-16, the declining unemployment rate in Manatee and Sarasota counties mirrors a decline in SCF students’ average credit load. That’s great news for the economy of our region, but a challenge for our college. This trend mirrors state and national averages.

Students are able to work as much as they can, and while they are still enrolling at SCF, they are taking fewer classes each term and deferring degree completion in exchange for economic benefits. In enrollment, we focus on two metrics: headcount and credit load. Headcount represents each individual who enrolls at the college, while credit load accounts for the average amount of credits for which each enrolled student registers. We deem headcount as expense, because the cost to support each student is incurred regardless of how many classes they take. Since we charge tuition based on how many credit hours a student registers for, credit load is considered revenue.

Is there an explanation for this trend of students taking fewer hours beyond the economy and unemployment rate? One theory is that our current students are survivors of the recession; they have learned the value of paying as they go and are avoiding the acquisition of debt. It’s tough to argue with our students making sound financial decisions and prioritizing the opportunity to work over potentially accumulating debt as they pursue a degree. Spread out over time, however, a college degree does become more expensive. When the goal of a college education is to find a higher paying job, deferring a degree costs money in the long run.

At SCF, we’ve begun to take several actions that should positively impact our headcount and credit load in our robust economy. We have a recruiter for each county working with area high schools to not just inform students about SCF, but to educate them on the process of applying for college and financial aid. We have also appointed a dedicated transfer coordinator to meet the unique needs of students transferring to SCF after attending another college or university. These initiatives and many others are bearing fruit as we see applications and enrollments increase for our upcoming summer and fall terms. We’re hopeful that the plans we have for the coming year will build on this momentum as we continue to develop concierge services for our students and defined degree pathways for timely completions.

Students always have a choice. They get to decide how many classes they will take and how fast they want to pursue a degree. At SCF, we will provide the programs and services to support them at their pace and successfully complete their degree or certificate.

Dr. Carol Probstfeld is president of State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota.

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