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Covid-19 Accelerates Clark’s Enrollment Issue

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Josie Uskoski, a student at La Center High School, knew she wanted to attend a Running Start program. What she didn’t know was which institution.

She researched both Lower Columbia College and Clark College. Since
academic programs, commute, and cost were all identical, Uskoski’s decision came down to one thing: the enrollment department’s response time.

“I could actually contact them,” Uskoski said of Lower Columbia. “They picked up the phone and returned my emails when I was trying to enroll.”

Uskoski is one of many students who’ve opted not to attend Clark.

Since the recession in 2008, enrollment at Clark College has decreased consistently. The world-wide pandemic starting in 2020 further amplified the enrollment issue. Clark’s enrollment fell from 9,330 full-time equivalent students in 2013 to 6,804 in 2020. That’s a 27 percent decrease.

“We are the highest under-enrolled single college in our system,” wrote Sabra Sand, interim vice president of operations at Clark in a Feb. 1 email to faculty and staff.

So, why has Clark seen a decrease for so long?

Some current Running Start students at Lower Columbia Community College such as Gabe Moon and Colten Vick, say that the proximity of the campus is a large factor for their enrollment.

“For me it was a lot closer and more available to me,” Moon said. “I live pretty far away, even from Longview. Clark College would nearly be an hour and a half each drive there and then another hour and a half back.”

Unlike Vik and Moon, commuting is not always a prevalent factor in a student’s decision. Prospective Running Start students in the La Center, Battle Ground, and Woodland area are all encouraged to choose whichever Community College they see fit for their individual needs as commute is equivalent.

The Running Start students who are significantly closer to Clark College face a unique set of choices. Cascadia Technical Academy, a dual enrollment program for high school students who are looking to receive a trade degree, is located in the evergreen school district near Clark College.

Aside from Running Start, some students have begun started careers that did not do not require a degree. Many companies need people to work and many students have no incentive to return to finish or start their degrees.

The current work shortages during the Covid-19 pandemic raised wages and many companies added additional sign-on bonuses. Raising wages and working incentives is keeping more students away.

Students, specifically men, are staying away according to The Seattle Times . In their article published April 24th, 2022, they analyzed the trend across Washington State of decreasing enrollment. Journalists found that education was viewed as “unmanly”. This rhetoric stems from the male dominated blue collar jobs. In order for women to pursue a higher paying career it is imperative that they have a higher education. Additionally, teaching, being a woman dominated field, created the stigma that education was unmasculine.

Last summer, Clark outsourced to a firm to map out their marketing plan over a two year period.

“We’re really in earnest trying to execute that plan,” said Kevin Damore, director of marketing at Clark. “We started a little bit of this year and we’ll move more heavily into the 20 to 23 academic year and there’s a number of components of that that are around driving enrollments specifically.”

Clark is also moving the marketing towards digital media in hopes to create cheaper and more impactful advertising.

Due to budget cutbacks from the lowering enrollment, Clark is limiting the usage of traditional marketing such as billboards and newspaper ads. Now, they use them to bring awareness to less common fields that Clark offers not to coherse potential students into enrolling.

Clark College is also actively focusing on students who showed interest in the College but didn’t enroll.

“We’ve also done a number of a handful of postcard campaigns and those campaigns are are directed specifically to students who have applied for Clark but haven’t enrolled or registered in classes.” Damore said.

Clark also attempted to work on an outreach project for Hudson’s Bay High School to gain more Running Start enrollment. Unfortunately, they were unable to receive funding.

With a combination of all of these marketing initiations, Clark expects an enrollment of 3,862 FTE students with 1,455 of those students being in Running Start for 2023. (Significantly less wrap up sentence)

Uskoski is excited to graduate from Lower Columbia this June and transfer to Montana State in the fall 2022.

Damore said he couldn’t comment on Uskoski’s personalized situation since he was not directly involved in the story.

Dr. Michele Cruse, vice president of student affairs, wrote in an email that the college is starting a student summit for Running Start students to get more information as well as hiring an associate director of dual enrollment in hopes that Clark College does not lose any more prospective students like Uskoski.

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