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HCC enrollment dips as economy improves

Marlowe Mager isn’t an economist by trade, but a little-known data set at his fingertips puts him on par with the nation’s best forecasters.

The window of his office at Haywood Community College gives him a bird’s-eye view of the economy, simply judging by the number and age of the students walking around on campus.

Enrollment at HCC has dropped steadily and substantially over the past four years — there were 1,000 fewer students in 2014 than in 2011. That’s a decline of nearly 20 percent.

“It reflects that people are returning to work,” said Mager, executive director of research and institutional support at HCC.

The converse of that is also true. 

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“When the economy is going down community college enrollment goes up, and that’s universal,” Mager said.

The number of students at HCC grew year over year during the recession. Enrollment began to rise in 2007 and peaked in 2010 before trending back down.

The median age of HCC students has also come down over the past four years. The recession brought an influx of middle-aged students seeking new career fields, pushing the average age upward. As they returned to work with new degrees and certificates in hand, the average age fell.

The median age of HCC students is now around 32 years old, compared to 37 years old in 2010. 

As a whole, HCC students are older than your typical college student. About two-thirds are part-time. Most work. Half have kids. 

They are considered “non-traditional” students by definition. But for HCC, these “non-traditional” students are the norm.

“It has always been about two-thirds of our students are part-time,” Mager said.

That’s not surprising, considering half of HCC students are not only holding down jobs but also raising kids — and, according to a student survey, a quarter of students are single parents.

“You can see why so many of them are only taking one or two courses at a time,” Mager said.

Mager shared the latest report on student demographics at HCC’s Board of Trustees meeting last week.

“We wanted to share with you a portrait of the student body at Haywood. This reflects who our students are,” Mager told trustees.

The challenge for HCC is to tailor its course offerings accordingly.

“We are getting a better handle on who we have and how we need to serve them — how we need to support them, how we need to schedule courses and that sort of thing,” said HCC President Barbara Sue Parker.

While the total number of HCC students has declined, the number pursuing two-year associate’s degrees — as opposed to workforce training and job skills certifications — has gone up over the past four years.

Still, less than half of all HCC students are pursuing a two-year associate’s degree. Instead, many are after job-related certificates or trainings to improve their career station — gaining new skills or know-how to advance in their field, land a promotion, earn more money or switch jobs. 

HCC students also include those taking a Spanish class in advance of a trip to South America, or a jewelry-making class just for fun.

“They are trying to learn a particular skill, or it is just something they are interested in,” Mager said.

HCC’s students over the past five years have ranged from a 14-year-old in the early college program to students in their mid-90s taking hobby classes.

The constant ebb and flow of students based on economic conditions isn’t new. HCC enrollment has gone up and back down twice over the past 15 years, mirroring the county’s economy.

HCC enrollment grew during the early 2000s in the wake of a steady series of plant closures. The spat of closures put a few thousand people out of work in Haywood County during the late 1990s and early 2000s.

They’d spent their careers in a factory and, suddenly jobless, many turned to HCC to get degrees in a new field.

Enrollment then declined starting in 2003, as the county entered the boom years of the real estate and construction heyday. It continued dropping through 2006, but reversed course and began climbing again when the recession hit in 2007.

The yo-yo effect on enrollment — predicated on the economic and jobs climate — poses funding challenges for HCC.

State funding is tied to enrollment. When enrollment drops, so does funding. Unfortunately, since enrollment upticks often coincide with economic downturns, state budget cuts come into play even though the student body is increasing.

“Our funding also goes down when the economy goes down, so we get more students and less money — and then we get less money again when the students go back to work,” Mager said.

HCC would like to increase enrollment. But with the job market improving, there are fewer unemployed people heading back to school for a new career track.

So HCC hopes to lure more so-called traditional students — the young, fresh-out-of-high-school variety. It has rolled out a novel incentive to that end. In honor of its 50th anniversary this year, HCC is giving out $500 scholarships to any graduating senior in Haywood County who comes to HCC in the fall.

The scholarship isn’t necessarily aimed at wooing seniors to come to HCC in lieu of another college or university. Rather, it’s aimed at the students who otherwise wouldn’t be going to college at all.

“Those are the ones we want to reach with that,” Mager said.

There’s about 300 seniors a year who graduate from high school in Haywood County but don’t go on to college.

“Trying to capture those students is a big opportunity for us,” said Laura Leatherwood, vice president of student services at HCC. “We think the scholarship is one more carrot that might at least get those students in our door.”


By the numbers

• 3,870: students taking classes at HCC in 2014

• 65: percent of students considered part-time

• 1,000: enrollment decline over past four years, coming off enrollment highs during the height of the recession

• 32: median age of all HCC students in 2014

• 41: median age of workforce training and continuing education students

• 23: median age of HCC students in curriculum fields pursuing associate’s degrees

• 68: percent of students who live in Haywood County

• 60: percent of curriculum students who are female

• 40: percent of workforce and continuing education students who are female

*Compiled from a demographic report on Haywood Community College students.

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