This upcoming academic year will be the first time the college has projected an increase in student body population since the 2010-11 year. The school expects enrollment will rise 3.5 percent to 2,144 full-time equivalent students in 2014-15 from 2,070 in 2013-14.
Vice President of Student Affairs Mandy Lang attributed this year’s increase in students to the opening of the new Stevens Point campus and its new and expanded course offerings. She said the three-year enrollment decline was due to the economy.
“When the economy gets better, there can be a drop in enrollment for colleges,” Lang said.
After the recession hit in 2008 and layoffs became more common in central Wisconsin, MSTC saw enrollment increase as dislocated workers decided to return to school and acquire new skills. Government funding for dislocated worker training also increased during this time, Lang said. However, as the effects of the recession mitigated, the school’s numbers steadily declined from 2011 to 2014.
Still, these trends in enrollment are not unique to MSTC. According to the Wisconsin Technical College System’s 2011-13 Biennial Report, all Wisconsin technical colleges saw a decrease in full-time equivalent students from the 2009-10 academic school year to the 2011-12 year. Across the technical college system, there was a 3.9 percent drop in enrollment from 2009-10 to 2011-12, totaling a decrease of 3,175 students.
Conor Smyth, director of strategic partnerships and external relations at WTCS, said enrollment rates in the state’s technical colleges were the highest in the system’s history during the recession. The tendency for people to return to college during times of economic hardship is a historic trend, he said. Likewise, when the economy gets better, people tend to go back to work. This phenomena, he said, explains the subsequent decline in enrollment.
“There’s a preference for work and earning money,” Smyth said.
Katie Felch, director of public relations and marketing at Northcentral Technical College in Wausau, also noted the economy’s role in determining enrollment at NTC. Since 2006-07, Felch said NTC’s enrollment increased by 50 percent and in 2012, it was recognized as the 21st fastest-growing community college in the nation by Community College Week. This past May, NTC graduated its largest class ever.
This year, NTC’s enrollment is down 8 percent, but Felch expects it to rebound.
“We saw a big bubble due to dislocated workers,” Felch said.
However, the recession isn’t the only factor influencing enrollment. MSTC’s pool of potential students is much smaller because of its district’s demographics.
According to MSTC’s calculations in its 2014-15 budget, residents in the school’s district are significantly older than the national average. Compared to the national average, there are 16 percent more people per capita who are older than 50. Combine this with the fact that MSTC’s district has only grown 1 percent in population since 2001 and it puts MSTC at a notable disadvantage in enrolling students. For context, Wisconsin’s population has grown 7 percent and the U.S.’s has grown 11 percent since 2001.
Another cause for concern in technical college enrollment is the diminishing number of students in high school. Smyth said the total number of high school graduates is expected to decrease in the next decade and with fewer students enrolled in high school, it is likely to impact enrollment at all colleges.
However, the technical colleges are especially starting to notice.
“There are just fewer students in the pipeline,” Felch said. “So we’re working to attract those students.”
But, as Smyth said, recruitment for students is especially hard for technical colleges because of their constant battle with a “four-year bias.” High school students, in particular, might feel more pressured by their peers, parents and school counselors to enroll in a four-year university even though their academic interest might be better aligned with a technical college.
Still, Smyth admits that breaking this bias is especially hard.
“We’re trying to get people to think along the lines of, ‘What do you want to do?’ rather than, ‘Where do you want to go?’” Smyth said.
In addition, student financial aid is growing harder to attain because of government regulations, further hindering student enrollment. Although technical colleges might be more affordable than a four-year university, Smyth said the number of students eligible for state-funded, need-based financial aid far outpaces the sufficient funds available to them.
At MSTC, Lang said the declining accessibility of financial aid is impacting the number of students it enrolls.
“It has been a factor (in enrollment) over the past few years,” Lang said about financial aid. “Those regulations do continue to tighten.”
Lang said MSTC anticipates a “moderate growth” in student body population during the next few years but would not speak to whether maintaining a steadily increasing enrollment was a high priority for MSTC. Instead, she emphasized student success as one of MSTC’s largest priorities.