Despite dip in community college enrollment statewide, McHenry County College sees growth

Skyler Clow (center), 18, of McHenry walks the halls of McHenry County College in-between classes Thursday. Enrollment at MCC has been growing this spring.
Skyler Clow (center), 18, of McHenry walks the halls of McHenry County College in-between classes Thursday. Enrollment at MCC has been growing this spring.

CRYSTAL LAKE – Enrollment at McHenry County College rose this spring as numbers dipped slightly at most community colleges across the state.

The 2.2 percent increase in full-time equivalent students compared with last spring bucks a 2.5 percent overall decline in community college enrollment statewide, data show. MCC has 3,953 full-time equivalent students this spring compared with 3,867 in 2012.

The Crystal Lake-based institution has been a topic of debate recently as officials discuss a proposed $42 million expansion.

“We have tried to focus on putting in new programs and coursework that meets the needs of our students,” said Tony Miksa, vice president of academic and student affairs. “Those are the key drivers that are pushing enrollment.”

The full-time equivalent student enrollment count statewide for spring is 205,947, compared with 211,247 a year ago, according to a spring enrollment report recently released by the Illinois Community College Board. The figures reflect the total number of credit hours being taken by students divided by 15, which traditionally is considered
a full-time class load.

The slight decrease continues a three-year decline in overall enrollment across the state.

After a spike of 10.5 percent in the spring of 2010 compared with 2009, numbers have fallen 1.9 percent, 3.9 percent and 2.5 percent statewide each of the last three spring semesters, data show. That coincides with a 4.1 percent overall drop this fall compared with the fall of 2011.

Despite the decline, full-time equivalent enrollment this spring is at the fourth-highest level in the 39 years the ICCB has collected data.

“Community colleges are more important than ever because they meet local employer demands and can be really responsive to the economic climate,” Illinois Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon said. “I think we will see enrollment at least remain steady if not go up because more and more people are price sensitive about college, and when it comes to total expenses, community colleges are a better bargain all the time.”

Locally, Harper College, Elgin Community College and Rock Valley College also saw slight decreases in spring enrollment numbers. College of Lake County saw an increase of 1.3 percent in full-time equivalent students.

“In general, community college enrollment numbers correlate with the economy,” ECC spokeswoman Evelyn Schiele said. “We are up this semester, but when it comes to college-level programs, younger students have increased but we were down in the 25- to 54-year-old range.”

MCC has had the second-highest growth rate among state community colleges in spring semester enrollment since 2009, at 21 percent, data show. During the last five fall semesters, MCC has led the state in growth with a 31 percent increase since 2008.

The community college’s only significant decline in enrollment in the last five years came in 2011, following the end of the Promise program, which offered two years’ paid tuition if certain requirements were met beginning in the fall of 2009.

During the program, a majority of students didn’t finish as members, but a high number stayed at the institution.

“After the Promise program group came to campus, they finished up their coursework and we saw a decline [in enrollment],” Miksa said. “Now we are seeing that rebound, and enrollment going back to normal growth we expect year in and year out.”

To increase enrollment, MCC has focused on developing programs to meet the biggest industries in its district – manufacturing and health care – and preparing students to transfer on to four-year institutions.

That includes the Fast Track program offering professional certificates and accelerated degree programs for adults, as well as a collaborative effort with area high schools that prepares incoming students for college-level English and math courses.

“McHenry County College stands out because of their efforts in connecting high school students to college,” Simon said. “They also make connections with local industries that work for both the companies involved and the students.”

MCC trustees approved a 3 percent tuition increase for students attending the community college next year as officials brace for decreased funding from the state, face property-tax limits, and seek to save money for future maintenance.

Each credit hour will cost $102 compared with the current $99 rate, which was a 9 percent increase at the time it was approved in 2011, the last time the board approved a tuition increase.

MCC still trails behind other community colleges in the state, where the average cost per credit hour is $107.89, according to the ICCB.

Overall, the majority of community colleges statewide saw a spike in enrollment starting in the fall of 2009 before a steady decline took hold in the fall of 2011.

“We had the surge, it started to come down, but the new normal is higher than it was before the surge,” Schiele said. “For us, we are pleased about that because more people have gotten exposure to community colleges.”

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