Enrollment Falls as Economy Grows: The Ins and Outs of Clark’s Shrinking Student Population

Following the decline of Clark’s enrollment since 2011, administrators have declared an “enrollment crisis.” The college is facing a budget deficit for the 2017-2018 school year, and Clark College President Bob Knight said this shortfall was caused by the enrollment decrease.

But what’s causing the enrollment crisis?

Data from Clark’s Planning and Effectiveness Department says the college’s number of full time enrollments has been diminishing each year since the 2011-12 academic year. The steady decline in enrollment coincides with the decline in unemployment.

“I think you can attribute a good portion of the enrollment crisis to the improving economy,” Vice President of Administrative Services Bob Williamson said. “It’s

Bob Williamson Discussing the ins and outs of Clark’s budget with Indy staff earlier this quarter. (Andy Bao/the Independent)

almost a pure 1:1 relationship between employment rates and enrollment rates at community colleges.”

Scott Bailey, regional labor economist and economics instructor at Clark, said the economy looks better than it has in several years. “We’ve got a low unemployment rate and a really strong job growth over the past couple of years across all industries.”

Economics instructor Scot Bailey (Andy Bao/The Independent)

People who accrued debt during the Great Recession are focused on finding funds to pay it off, Bailey said. The increase in availability of jobs over the past several years, especially those that require minimal education, has caused people to begin seeking employment over college.

“If you’re fully employed, you’re really focused on making money,” Bailey said. “It’s hard to reinvest and go back to school if you’re paying off credit card debt and student loans.”

Williamson said that low enrollment rates have serious impacts on the college’s budget. Not only will Clark receive less tuition money, but the decrease in enrollment means it won’t be awarded as much funding by the state.

Fewer students doesn’t mean lower operating costs. Williamson said the college’s basic operating costs don’t depend on enrollment, and costs go up every year from inflation, wage increases, higher utility usage and other factors.

“If your costs are going up, but the revenue you’re pumping into your organization is going down or staying static, then you’re going to have a structural budget problem,” Williamson said.

Bill Belden, the vice president of Student Affairs, said fighting a declining budget was part of dealing with the enrollment crisis, “It’s a troubling place to be every year as a college.”

In order to counteract the college’s shrinking enrollment, Belden said one of their primary measures was implementing Guided Pathways. Belden said that since enrollment includes returning as well as new students, Guided Pathways should help the enrollment crisis by increasing student retention.

“Right now, it’s about stabilizing our enrollments so that we’re not on a downward spiral anymore,” Belden said.

Williamson said the local community benefits by investing in Clark. Funding the college allows it to return the favor in the future by providing skilled workers and pumping money back into the region.

“Whether the economy is booming or not, if the state and community invests in community colleges, we will continue to produce that return,” Williamson said. “If you don’t invest in education overall, it’s going to have a long-term negative impact on the local economy.”

Bailey also said that investing in education was vital to the future of the community.

“Economies run when we invest in the future, and workforce training is part of that investment,” Bailey said. “When we cut that, that’s stopping progress.”

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