ACROSS MISSISSIPPI — A spike in college enrollment appears to be easing for Mississippi’s public universities and community colleges.
Enrollment fell 5 percent at the state’s 15 community colleges, and rose only 0.6 percent at its eight public universities, according to preliminary figures.
It’s the second straight decrease at community colleges. Enrollment dipped to 81,311 across all colleges, although student totals remain higher than before the recession.
Universities posted the smallest increase since 2005, but total students rose to a record of 80,973. Enrollment at public universities has risen every year since 1994.
Students flocked to Mississippi’s community colleges and universities during the recession, trying to improve their job credentials. But leaders say a decrease in the unemployment rate, along with restrictions on federal student aid, may be cutting the number of students.
Enrollments typically rise when the job market goes sour and ease when jobs become more plentiful. The National Student Clearinghouse, which counts college students, found a “cresting wave” of people nationwide entering community colleges in 2009, when the economy was at its worst, with the number of students peaking in 2010 before beginning to fall. That’s the pattern Mississippi’s two-year schools followed, with students hitting an all-time high of nearly 89,000 in 2010.
“We had a huge boom in enrollment because of the recession,” said Eric Clark, executive director of the Mississippi Community College Board. “People who lost a job or were afraid they were going to lose a job said ‘I need to make myself more valuable to my employer.'”
Clark said restrictions on federal Pell Grants, which aid needy students, are also cutting into enrollment. For example, people without a high school diploma or GED no longer get aid.
The clearinghouse found enrollment in public universities has been more steady, although some students may have been pressured to start their education at community colleges for financial reasons. Enrollment grew 13 percent at Mississippi public universities from 2008 through 2011.
“This enrollment increase is smaller than the increases we have seen over the past few years, but having more than 80,000 students enrolled is still great news for our students and our state,” Higher Education Commissioner Hank Bounds said in a statement.
Mississippi’s colleges and universities struggled to accommodate more students at the same time that lawmakers cut budgets or raised them more slowly than enrollment grew. Both levels of higher education raised tuition to cope, and their budgets are much more reliant on tuition than they were 15 years ago. If growth slows down, though, per-student support could have a better chance of catching up.
Overall university enrollment would have fallen but for the 3.4 percent increase at the University of Mississippi, which showed the strongest growth.
Alcorn State University shrank 3.4 percent, the most among five universities posting declines.
Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College was the only community college where enrollment grew, with total students rising 4.6 percent. Coahoma Community College fared worst, falling 22.8 percent. Itawamba Community College and Jones County Junior College also posted double-digit declines.