ACROSS MISSISSIPPI — Enrollment has fallen at Mississippi’s 15 community colleges for the third year in a row, according to preliminary figures reported by the Community College Board.
The new data show that the number of students enrolled at the state’s two-year schools fell 4.3 percent this fall to 77,661.
That means community college enrollment has now dipped back below that of the state’s eight public universities. The number of university students fell less than 1 percent to 80,532, breaking a string of 20 straight years of increases.
College enrollment usually tracks against the economy, rising when the job market is bad and falling when it’s better. Students streamed into community college classrooms 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, are cutting the number of students.
“As the economy improves, folks are getting jobs they weren’t able to get a couple of years ago,” said Eric Clark, executive director of the Community College Board.
The National Student Clearinghouse, which counts college students, said in a report last May that community colleges and private for-profit institutions were shedding students more rapidly than four-year public schools and nonprofit private colleges. Community colleges and for-profit schools are more likely to serve people looking for a quick brush-up on their career skills, and the drop in their numbers lines up with a larger increase in older students, the clearinghouse found.
Mississippi officials also believe restrictions on federal Pell Grants, which aid needy students, are cutting into enrollment. For example, people without a high school diploma or GED no longer get aid. A study earlier this year by University of Alabama Professor Stephen Katsinas estimated that thousands of students statewide aren’t enrolled in community colleges because of the stricter rules.
Clark noted that the number of students remains above the prerecession mark of 67,719 in 2007.
“Most of our community colleges were experiencing record enrollments, which we knew would not continue over time,” he said.
After seeing a 10 percent decrease in students last fall, Jones County Junior College was the only school to see enrollment climb this fall: a 6-percent jump to 4,663 students.
President Jesse Smith said he is glad to have beaten expectations. “It means we’re doing something right.” College officials cite recruitment efforts, free tuition for residents of Greene and Jasper counties, and a new location in Waynesboro.
Enrollment at Coahoma Community College fell 11 percent, the largest percentage drop. The largest total drop was at Hinds Community College, the state’s largest two-year school. It shed about 800 students, falling 6 percent to 12,078.
Colleen Hartfield, vice president for community relations and governmental affairs at Hinds, said students are taking more classes per person, offsetting the enrollment drop. She attributed that to counseling to push students toward 15 credit hours per semester, as well as new requirements that students who get scholarships granted by the school take full class loads.
The idea is to move more students through to associate degrees.
“Students who take 15 or more credit hours per semester are more likely to finish college on time, earn better grades and have higher completion rates,” Hartfield said.