CRYSTAL LAKE – As McHenry County College officials prepare to build up the school’s Crystal Lake campus, they’ve been dogged by questions about the enrollment projections used to justify the proposed expansion.
The college’s facilities master plan, which could cost $640 million over the next 40 years and $278.5 million in the next decade, assumes student enrollment will steadily increase by 3 percent each year.
The projections didn’t come from a professional demographic study. Instead, they came from a committee of MCC officials working with Wight and Co., a Darien-based design firm hired by the college to draft its facilities master plan.
Critics have pointed out that the college’s projections relied on outdated and inflated county population estimates even though more accurate estimates from the 2010 U.S. Census were available. They also have questioned the methods used to calculate future enrollment growth.
In an open letter to community leaders, a Lakewood resident called the projections “shoddy” and said the numbers were “pulled out of the air.”
After questions from taxpayers and the Northwest Herald, MCC board member Ronald Parrish said he wasn’t satisfied, either.
“I thought it was sloppy, too,” he said.
Although Parrish said he is doing his own research into the projections, other board members and college administrators have stood by the 3 percent annual growth projection.
“I think that’s an extremely conservative number,” board Chairwoman Mary Miller said. “We are actually projecting less than what Wight and Co. wanted. They wanted 4 percent, but we wanted to be more conservative.”
The projection was based on decades of county population growth, MCC enrollment trends, and other factors, said Wight and Co. senior project manager Leanne Meyer-Smith. She said the projection was conservative.
“Consider the exact rate of growth not as important as accepting that MCC must be ready whenever the growth occurs,” Meyer-Smith said in an email. “It would be a shame if MCC did not have land or a long-range plan in place for growth when it comes.”
PROJECTIONS USED TO GUIDE EXPANSION PLAN
The projections are important because Wight and Co. used the rate of enrollment growth to determine how many square feet of building space the college will need for classrooms, offices and laboratories in the coming decades. The amount of additional building space was used to estimate the cost of the expansion.
The Northwest Herald found discrepancies in the numbers Wight and Co. and MCC officials used to estimate growth.
Wight and Co. relied on outdated county population figures. And in response to questions about the calculations and projected growth rates, Wight and Co. provided inconsistent answers. As a result, the college’s facility master plan may have overstated future enrollment growth. That could impact how quickly the college will need to expand and how much it will cost.
Wight and Co. used the Fall 2011 McHenry County Labor Report and 10 years of enrollment data from the college to come up with the projection. The labor report showed that McHenry County’s population had increased 74.7 percent since 1990 to 320,133 people in 2010.
That works out to an annual growth rate of 3.7 percent, or an annual average growth rate of about 2.8 percent, depending on how it’s calculated. Both methods of calculation have advantages and disadvantages when looking at various data sets.
The annual percentage growth is the total population growth divided by the number of years in the data set. The annual average growth rate, or compound growth rate, is a bit more complex. It smooths out fluctuations and describes the growth as if it had grown at a consistent pace.
But McHenry County actually had fewer residents than the labor report indicated. Results from the 2010 U.S. Census put the county’s total population at 308,760. The census data were released in February 2011, nearly 10 months before the college’s facilities master plan was presented to the MCC board and public in December. Using the numbers from the 2010 U.S. Census, the annual growth rate was 3.4 percent, and the average annual growth rate was 2.6 percent.
Lakewood resident Stephen Willson filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the college in May seeking documents supporting the enrollment projection. In response, the college provided a statement from Wight and Co. that said the county’s growth since 1990 “translates to 3.5 percent per year.”
When the Northwest Herald asked about the 3 percent enrollment growth projection in late June, Wight and Co.’s Leanne Meyer-Smith responded in an email, citing different figures from the same 2011 labor report. She concluded the county’s growth was “average 4.43 percent per year (some years are probably more and some probably less).”
“In discussions with the college and their actual enrollment numbers experience, we believe we were conservative with 3 percent per year,” Meyer-Smith wrote.
She declined to answer questions about why she used an annual growth rate rather than an annual average growth rate.
The McHenry County 2030 Plan, which was published in 2010 to provide a long-range guide for development, is based “on a projected 2030 population of 495,000 persons, which corresponds to an annual average growth rate of 2.0 percent.”
A decade of MCC enrollment figures show that enrollment has increased 68.6 percent, from the equivalent of 2,587 full-time students in the fall of 2001 to the equivalent of 4,361 full-time students in the fall of 2011.
That works out to an annual growth rate of about 6.9 percent, or an annual average growth rate of about 5.4 percent.
However, that 10-year span used to project future growth includes the single largest increase in student enrollment in the college’s history spurred by a free tuition program. Full-time equivalent enrollment jumped 29.3 percent from 3,263 in fall 2009 to 4,222 in fall 2010.
The surge in enrollment was driven, in large part, by the Promise program, which offered incoming high school students free tuition in exchange for maintaining a specific grade-point average and performing community service work. More than 1,000 full-time students enrolled in the Promise program.
The Friends of McHenry County College Foundation, a nonprofit group, launched the program in 2009 at the same time the recession forced many students to search for cheaper education and sent many unemployed adults back to school. The program has since been discontinued.
MCC was able to retain most of the students who enrolled during the Promise program, even after the scholarship money dried up. Because of that, administrators said it was appropriate to include that in the data set used as a basis for future enrollment growth, even though the program is unlikely to return in the same format or on such a large scale.
LOCAL SCHOOLS BRACE FOR DECLINE
Critics have questioned how MCC can expect to grow at a time when the largest secondary and elementary school districts in the county are preparing for enrollment to decline.
“Community colleges don’t just serve recent college graduates,” Miller said. “We also retrain adult students to re-enter the workforce.”
MCC administrators have said they expect to attract more students of all ages in the coming years with new career and technical training courses in growing fields such as health care, emerging technologies and manufacturing.
A significant part of the county’s economy is depends on manufacturing. Centegra Health System and Mercy Health System are among the county’s largest employers.
Those under the age of 25 account for the majority of students enrolled in for-credit courses at MCC, but there are signs of a shift.
For example, 70 percent of the graduates from MCC’s nursing program in 2010 were at least 23 years old, said Sharon Button, interim associate dean of mathematics, sciences and health professions.
DESPITE DIPS, MCC LOOKS AT ‘BIGGER PICTURE’
McHenry County’s population growth has slowed dramatically since the boom of earlier decades. The county’s population has grown 0.1 percent since the 2010 Census, according to Indiana University’s STATS America service. And the college’s enrollment has dipped about 4 percent in recent semesters, said Tony Miksa, the college’s vice president of academic and student affairs.
Although the 3 percent growth projection may seem optimistic in light of recent trends, Miksa said it was important to look at the “bigger picture.”
“This institution started in 1967 and we had no students. Here were are in 2012, and we have about 4,000 full-time students,” he said. “Past activity is a pretty good predictor of future activity. We know we are going to grow over the next 40 years. We would be remiss if we weren’t preparing for the growth of our community.”
Miller said that the college’s facilities master plan wasn’t set in stone and could be revised to reflect changing growth and enrollment trends, if needed.
MCC’s facilities master plan calculates that the college will need 574,000 square feet and 2,900 parking spaces to handle the 5,500 full-time students projected by 2021. That’s assuming enrollment will increase by 3 percent each year. It also assumes that 86.6 percent of students will attend classes on campus, a factor meant to account for students who take online courses or attend classes at other locations.
Renovating the college’s existing buildings and adding new buildings to accommodate that many students in 10 years would cost $278.5 million, according the facilities master plan that Wight and Co. prepared.
MCC President Vicky Smith has said a property tax referendum would be considered only after other options were exhausted. Feasibility studies for other funding methods could get under way late this year or early next year, Smith said. Board members previously have discussed using state and federal grant funds, private donations, and partnerships with regional businesses to pay for expansion.