By BRIANNA HERNANDEZ
Partly because of an improved economy, Pima Community College continues to suffer from low enrollment and retention rates.
Since Fall 2014, the total student headcount at PCC has dropped a whopping 12.82 percent. In Fall 2016, PCC experienced a 6.14 percent drop compared to the previous fall semester.
This fall semester brought about another drop, albeit an improved one: a 2.24 percent dip in total headcount.
”If you look at what is happening nationally our enrollment is actually up and it’s still continuing to go down and stabilize across the country,” said Karrie Mitchell, vice chancellor of student services. “So this is a positive thing for us.”
According to Mitchell and Lisa Brosky, vice chancellor of external relations, enrollment decreases partially can be blamed on the economy.
“Community college enrollment often runs countercyclical to the economy,” Brosky said. “During the depths of the Great Recession, community college enrollment across the U.S. reached peak highs.”
According to Brosky, people returned to college looking for new opportunities and to wait out the recession.
The unemployment rate in Arizona was 4.3 percent in December 2016, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That compared to a rate in December 2008 of 6.9 percent.
Last semester, Brosky cited the work of Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. Carnevale contends declined enrollment may be driven by a perceived lack of correlation between college and employment.
“Enrollment has been tapering ever since as jobs returned,” Brosky said. “Colleges adjust to that cycle by constantly evaluating the needs of employers and building out needed programs or adding technology and other resources.”
Past accreditation issues don’t appear to be a primary factor in enrollment decreases, Mitchell said.
“Over the summer we did a survey with students who had applied to the college but hadn’t enrolled and then applied to the college and were planning on enrolling in the spring and fall,” Mitchell said. “They rated Pima’s reputation as one of the highlights as to why they were coming here.
“People in the community aren’t really paying attention to accreditation.”
No quick fix
In the past year, Mitchell frequently has provided enrollment updates at PCC Board of Governor meetings. The BOG presentations included reasoning behind declines and strategies to combat them.
Currently, Pima’s 13 percent graduation rate falls below the 32 percent rate of other two-year colleges.
“One of the reasons may be that students didn’t plan to get a degree or certificate in the first place,” Mitchell said. “Maybe they were only here for a few classes and left after they completed them before acquiring a degree.”
PCC sees potential in enrollment growth with online education.
“We are looking at putting more of our programs completely online,” Mitchell said. “A lot of students and potential students that we have calling in are interested in it. They are like stay-at-home moms who are like, ‘I’ll do it if I can stay at home’.”
Mitchell said PCC is looking to build online education in order to cater to students who are unable to take classes at a PCC campus.
“A couple of summers ago, we did a phonathon where we were trying to get students to come back,” Mitchell said. “One of the comments we heard from students said ‘Well, I’ve been trying to take my last class in this field but it keeps being offered and then canceled.”
Mitchell said the blame is on PCC.
“That is on our part,” Mitchell said. “We need to be more strategic. If you got students in your program who are dedicated and want to finish, we need to be able to offer classes.”
All PCC programs are subject to a review where enrollment, retention, persistence, graduation rate, transferability and employability are analyzed.
“Programs that aren’t meeting certain numbers or metrics are up for inactivation,” Mitchell said. “So if you only got three students in your program then we can’t continue to run it because it isn’t financially viable for us.
“What is happening is that program goes through inactivation and teachout (///), which means that we come up with a plan to figure out when we are going to teach those classes no matter if there is only one student in the class.”
Mitchell said PCC does this to honor its commitment to students.
PCC is also currently in the process of redesigning the admissions application in an attempt to understand why students choose to attend college.
For example, with the redesign, if students enroll intending to learn how to do their own taxes, they will not be listed as an accounting major or included in the cohort sent for federal reporting.
“This means that once the redesign is complete, we will be able to better capture intent and classify students appropriately,” Mitchell said.
The redesign will also help students to focus on a career pathway so that PCC can aid in providing the best suited classes for the students pathway.
“We are really trying to get students to think about why they are coming,” Mitchell said. “Trying to get you to wiggle it down so we get you into the right courses at the beginning so you’re motivated and don’t waste your financial aid money.”
The college’s goal is to increase enrollment by 2 percent for the 2017-’18 academic year, according to an enrollment report given by Mitchell and Lisa Brosky, vice chancellor of external communications, at a Nov. 8 board meeting.
“Marketing includes multiple forms of communication, encompassing public relations, advertising, recruiting, meetings and events,” Brosky said.
A marketing emphasis has been placed on late start 14-week courses that began on Sept. 6. To promote these courses, digital ads and pop-ups on the ThinkSmart websites were run.
“Adult students tend to decide on college when something happens in their lives such a job loss, divorce or a need to advance at work,” Brosky said. “It is important for them to see their options at the moment they make that decision.”
According to the report, as of Sept. 21, enrollment for late start classes was 7,488 in comparison to 6,444 on September 2016. This stacks up to a 15.6 percent increase.
In October, Halloween-themed ads also were used to promote eight-week courses. As a result, PCC saw a 6.93 percent increase in eight-week late-start courses.
“The College tells its story through marketing and provides information and points of differentiation to help potential students make a decision, interest donors, and engage partners,” Brosky said.
Traditional paid media marketing also was used. This included ads placed on Sun Tran buses promoting the college’s over 400 online courses.
The bus ads aim to highlight the college’s accessibility to students.
“Community colleges are trying to find that hook,” Mitchell said. “What is going to get that single mom who is making $12 (an hour) sacrifice and take time and energy to come back to school so she can come back to school and get that certificate or degree so she can get that better career or job opportunity?”
Mitchell encouraged faculty to begin wearing their work badges outside of PCC in an effort to get Pima faculty and the community engaged with each other.
“This is just one tip faculty can follow,” Mitchell said. “Faculty who wear their badges outside of the college have cited that it often initiates conversations at grocery stores, restaurants and so on.”
The usual question PCC adjunct Catherine Lurvey, is asked when she is wearing her name badge is, ‘What do you teach?’ ”
“Because I teach algebra, my response is likely to elicit further comment or conversation as many people have negative memories of math,” Lurvey said. “But I always use the comment to say more about what is great about classes at Pima.”
She recalls years ago while on a trip to Ruby, Arizona, a fellow passenger was shocked to learn that Lurvey instructs math courses lower than algebra.
“She said, ‘Do you mean there are adults who can’t add or subtract decimals?’ ”
Lurvey explained that on the line where you must write the words for the amount of money of the check, people often write the words “dollar” and “cents.” However, neither word needs to be written, because the word “dollars” is already printed on the check.
“She was shocked and confessed that she is one of those people who has always written ‘dollars’ and ‘cents,’ ” Lurvey said. “Then she said, ‘Maybe I need to take your class.’ ”
Lurvey feels it’s important for faculty to stand out from students.
“At the college students and faculty are of all ages and faculty as well as students dress very casually,” Lurvey said. “It is difficult to know who is an employee and might be able to give directions or assist a visitor.”