OC, MC showing enrollment increases

Despite enrollment slowdowns at many community colleges statewide, Commissioner of Higher Education Harrison Keller said Odessa and Midland colleges are among the only ones that saw an increase.

OC President Gregory Williams said OC broke 8,000 students last fall for the first time.

According to the MC website, 5,184 students enrolled this past fall. That is an 8.83% increase over fall 2020 with 4,763 students enrolled, the site said.

“… At almost all of our colleges, when you look at enrollments from spring 2020 to spring ’22 almost everyone was reporting their enrollments were down …,” Keller said. “So spring 2020 is those enrollments were reported as of the 12th class day of spring 2020, so it would be our best baseline of where we were just before the pandemic shut everything down.”

“… Then as the economy has picked back up, there are a lot of folks that opted to work instead of enrolling in colleges. But you see a couple of notable differences, especially Odessa College, so Odessa and Midland both are two outliers. And Odessa in particular has enrollments that they reported being up considerably in spring ’22 compared to where they were in spring 2020,” Keller said.

The numbers for spring are still preliminary because not all the figures are in. The increases at OC and MC were not the only ones across the state, a spokesman for the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board said in an email.

“Our secret sauce is we’ve been trying to change the higher education outcomes for our community for a long time,” Williams said. “I’m fortunate to be in my 16th year here and we’ve had eight enrollment records in a row. We’re standing on eight fall record enrollments in a row, through good and bad times; pandemic and everything else. We know that the higher education attainment is not where it needs to be, so we’re very aggressive.”

“We try to be very innovative. We try to be creative. I think our secret sauce would be that we’re committed to improving in every way that we can and to challenging many of the norms and trying to see if there’s a different way to do it. One example would be the eight-week courses that we’ve utilized and that have helped us. But we’ve tried a number of other things…,” he added.

Midland College President Steve Thomas said once everyone emerged from COVID, things were beginning to turn around.

Thomas said he didn’t have an exact answer for why his enrollment has increased.

“… I think it’s a variety of things we’ve done over the last several months. One is I do think we did come out of the COVID cloud and we came out relatively intact with the programs we were offering and the courses we’ve continued. I think one of the reasons that our enrollments may be OK right now, and we’re hoping that trend line will continue, is that we do offer students a variety of ways to access courses at Midland College whether it’s online, or face to face , or hybrid. I think we’ve been very flexible in times we offer courses not only the modalities, but just the variety of the courses that we offer so I think that’s one of the reasons that maybe we’re holding our own,” Thomas said.

Another factor is being able to go out into the schools and promote MC.

“… For a long time, we weren’t able to promote and go out into the schools and be real proactive with our counselors and advisors. Once we were able to get back into the schools, we’ve been very aggressive in a lot of outreach efforts to get the word out about the college and getting students interested …,” Thomas said.

“Another thing we did was we really increased our marketing budget so we could be, again, much more aggressive in how we promote and advertise programs and services at Midland College. I think all of those combined, hopefully, is part of the reason,” he said.

Thomas added that there is not one single bullet that made the difference.

“I think it’s just all that effort on behalf of the faculty and staff. We’ve worked really hard to turn this trend line around and I think we’re seeing some of that. Spring enrollment was up a little bit. Summer looks good. We’re going into the fall, I think, in a pretty good position as well,” Thomas said.

Keller said colleges being flexible about when students can start and stop courses and “meeting them where they are” is a powerful way to help serve more students and keep them enrolled and on track.

There is a trend locally where students get into college, but don’t enroll. Keller said that’s true statewide.

“We’ve seen thousands of students enroll or begin the college application process and not follow through. It looks many of these students end up opting to work instead of enrolling in college and they tend to work in jobs that are lower skilled entry level jobs and so what can happen is students may find after a few years that they can have limited prospects to advance in their careers. We need to find more ways to encourage students not to choose either college or work but to be able to … enroll in programs that are flexible that allow them to work and to gain that professional experience, advance in their careers while they’re also advancing their education,” Keller said. “That can be a win-win for students and families and also for employers, so we are very interested in ways that colleges are redesigning their programs, emphasizing short-term credentials, incorporating more work experience and internships, apprenticeships and other kinds of work -based learning opportunities … ,” he added.

The state Commission on Community College Finance was chartered by the legislature last session and includes four presidents and chancellors, two senators, two state representatives, a faculty representative, a community college trustee and one member of the public, Keller said. It’s chaired by Woody Hunt of El Paso.

“That commission has dug deep into cost pressures that colleges are feeling they’ve also heard from some major employers about how their workforce needs are changing. They’ve looked at community college finance systems around the country. They’ve heard, I think, from more than a dozen states about how they fund their community colleges, what kind of changes they’ve made recently. There are a number of technical projects we’ve commissioned recently to support the state commission’s work …,” Keller said.

The commission’s report is due Nov. 1, but he said there should be a draft earlier in the fall where commission members would receive public testimony and input from various stakeholders about what kinds of changes and improvements should be made to the community college finance system, he added.

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