Spokane Journal of Business

Jobs tip enrollment patterns

Community colleges here see student migration toward noncredit pursuits

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Prior to the start of fall semester, a North Idaho College representative called a student to ask, Are you coming back to school?

The student asked, Why?

Bruce Gifford, NICs vice president of student services, says the students answer is indicative of a current challenge that community colleges here facestudents choosing employment over education.

While overall community-college enrollment in the Spokane-Coeur dAlene area has grown modestly if at all this year, the number of students taking noncredit vocational courses has jumped significantly.

Community Colleges of Spokanes Institute for Extended Learning, which primarily offers noncredit vocational training here, saw a 27 percent jump in full-time equivalent (FTE) enrollment to 740 this fall, up from 581 a year earlier.

Meanwhile, overall enrollment at Spokane Community College and Spokane Falls Community College rose this fall to 3,933 FTE students from 3,750 in 2004. SCC reported a 2 percent increase in FTE enrollment, while SFCCs enrollment remained relatively flat.

The economys good, unemployment is down, people are going back to work, says Gary Livingston, CEO of the Community Colleges of Spokane.

North Idaho College reported a 5 percent decline in FTE enrollment this fall after five years of steady growth.

Yet, enrollment at NICs Workforce Training Center, in Post Falls, which offers that schools noncredit classes, increased 39.4 percent to 12,975 total students (headcount) in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2005, up from 9,305 in the year-earlier period.

The labor market in North Idaho is strong right now, which usually means more people have jobs and fewer people are seeking degrees and certificates, NIC President Michael Burke said in a September announcement. However, the flexibility of being a community college allows us to continue to adapt to the needs of the community, which weve done by changing the way we deliver our courses and programs.

This flip in enrollment trends between credit and noncredit courses is typical when the job market improves, Gifford says. Thats what were abouttraining people, he says. Were not feeling too bad about that.

Kootenai Countys unemployment rate fell to 3.8 percent in October, down from 5 percent a year earlier.

CCSs Livingston says Spokanes community colleges also have experienced the effects of an improved job market, following a statewide trend.

As soon as the job market gets tight again, people will come back to get new skills, he says.

Spokane Countys unemployment rate dipped to 5.1 percent in September, down from 5.3 percent a year earlier.

The Washington state Board for Community and Technical Colleges reported that FTE enrollment at community colleges statewide dropped 4 percent to 162,761 in the fall of 2004, from 169,574 a year earlier. Fall 2005 enrollment figures are expected to be released early next year.

In August, the Puget Sound Business Journal reported that enrollment in worker retraining programs at Washingtons community colleges fell when the job market improved, accounting for half of the student population lost in the last school year, according to the state Board.

Even so, in the 2004-05 academic year, Washington state community colleges had 1.9 percent more students than the 128,612 slots funded by the state, the PSBJ reported. When schools exceed their enrollment slots, the education of the added students is paid for with tuition dollars, not by state matching funds.

Livingston says that the Spokane colleges have seen an increase in the number of people pursuing liberal arts studies, and that trend is expected to continue until roughly 2010. Washington states largest high school class is expected to graduate in 2008.

Retention is key

Both the Spokane and North Idaho community college systems are looking at ways to retain students.

Livingston says CCS is considering offering more classes at night and on the weekends. By next fall, it hopes to identify certificates or degree programs it can add to its offerings.

The college system needs to strengthen the programs it already offers, audit them to make sure its offering the right classes in the right sequence, market the programs more, and not have gaps in whats required for graduation, he says.

Mark Palek, president of Spokane Falls Community College, says We are trying to get students to complete more of their degree work with us. Right now half of the students that leave and transfer to Eastern complete their associates degree.

It would be more efficient, more accessible, and more cost effective if those students completed an associates degree at the community college, then transferred to a four-year college, he asserts.

Palek is chairman of the districts education committee, which is looking at ways to improve its academic offerings, including making sure college credits transfer to four-year schools and promoting better.

Students who cant come during traditional hours can still complete a degree in a reasonable amount of time, he says.

The district also is looking at various new professional-technical degrees and has added courses, including criminal justice, adult basic-education classes, and other coursework, that are held at the new CenterPlace in Spokane Valley.

We are starting to look at doing training in customized areas for different businesses, so we can support those activities and target those to the industries that have the greatest need, Palek says. For example, in the past, the colleges have trained workers for Triumph Composite Systems Inc., of Airway Heights.

Palek says he and the district hope to make taking classes through the community colleges the first step into some lifelong learning activities for such students. The goal is to make students continue to come back, not only for enrichment services, but for skills.

The colleges also hope to beef up offerings in health-care fields.

Theres a whole slew of long-term and short-term programs that we currently offer and will expand, Palek says.

CCS currently operates a practical nursing program at its Colville branch to train workers in that area to work in hospitals, doctors offices, and elsewhere. That program is a collaboration of all three of the systems institutionsSFCC, SCC, and the Institute for Extended Learning.

Its a great example for providing (for) a community need, he says. The program is expected to train 18 to 20 nurses to go into that community, and that will meet their needs for quite a while.

In addition, Sacred Heart Medical Center, of Spokane, recently transferred administration of its School of Radiologic Technology to SCC.

The 22-month program, which currently has about 40 students, will continue to use Sacred Hearts instructional laboratory and clinical space, says Joe Dunlap, SCCs vice president of learning. The programs five instructors, who still are employed by the hospital, eventually will be employed by the college.

There will still be an ongoing relationship between Sacred Heart and us, even at the end of this (school) year, Dunlap says.

The program transfer was made possible in part through a high-demand grant from the Board for Community and Technical Colleges, he says.

North Idaho College this summer received approval from the Idaho State Board of Education to add a radiography technology program, which is expected to start in the fall of 2006 with about 12 students.

The school also added landscape technology, human-resources assistant, and recreational-vehicle repair programs, Gifford says.

The college offers a dual enrollment program, allowing eligible high school juniors and seniors to enroll in its courses for both high school and college credit. It has expanded that programs course offerings over the past year.

It also is considering adding night courses. Weve never had a big night offering, Gifford says. Thats another area well be looking into.

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