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Enrollment rises at state's public universities, but falls at community colleges

Education-bubble_rgbACROSS MISSISSIPPI — Enrollment rose slightly for the fall semester at Mississippi’s eight public universities, but fell for the fourth straight year at the state’s 15 community colleges.

Preliminary counts released yesterday show the number of students rose 1.1 percent at universities to 79,909 overall and fell 1.8 percent at the community colleges to 76,266.

Students flocked to Mississippi’s community colleges and universities during the recession, trying to improve their job credentials. But leaders say a falling unemployment rate and restrictions on federal student aid may be cutting enrollment at community colleges.

Community College Board executive director Eric Clark said this year’s drop was less steep than over the three previous years, when enrollment fell by 11,000 students.

“Our enrollments are settling as the economy is recovering and our citizens are finding jobs or enrolling directly at a university,” Clark said.

Among universities, enrollment grew by the largest percent at Mississippi Valley State University, while Alcorn State University shrank the most.

Mississippi Valley officials have struggled with falling enrollment, raising questions about the future of the Itta Bena school. The 91-student rise to 2,294 students doesn’t come close to making up the 1,400 students the university lost over the past decade.

Student numbers also continued to surge at the University of Mississippi, which added more than 800 to push enrollment past 23,000. Mississippi is now almost 3,000 students larger than Mississippi State University. Its enrollment was smaller than Mississippi State as recently as 2010.

Mississippi’s freshman class rose to 3,814 this year, and university officials said 85 percent of last year’s freshmen returned as sophomores this fall.

“While we’re very happy with the endorsement of so many new freshmen this fall, we’re particularly pleased with the success of the first-year programs we have in place to help freshmen adjust to the rigors of a world-class university,” Mississippi Chancellor Dan Jones said.

Along with Alcorn State, the University of Southern Mississippi also had a big decrease. President Rodney Bennett said USM is focusing on recruiting and keeping better-qualified students. USM said grades and ACT scores of new freshmen were the highest in university history, and an earlier application deadline contributed to the drop.

Among community colleges, enrollment grew by the largest percentage at Northeast Mississippi Community College while it shrank the most at Meridian Community College.

Besides Northeast Mississippi, other community colleges that saw increases were Pearl River Community College and Hinds Community College.

Scott Alsobrooks, vice president for economic and community development at Pearl River, said demand for associate of applied science degrees and proficiency certificates remain strong

“Many programs are at capacity and have waiting lists to enter,” he said. “Graduation and employment rates for students in these programs remain robust.”

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