Enrollment jumps at community colleges

Community colleges that serve Northeast Mississippi are seeing double-digit percentage increases in enrollment in the first year since most of the area’s counties passed tuition guarantee programs.
Enrollment increased by 15.7 percent at Itawamba Community College; 12.3 percent at Northeast Mississippi College; 26 percent at East Mississippi Community College; and 16.6 percent at Northwest Mississippi Community College, according to unofficial numbers released by all four schools.
The official numbers won’t be available under the state board conducts its audit during the next few months.
Fulton-based ICC also saw a 37 percent increase on its Tupelo campus, up to 2,265 from 1,653 last year.
Statewide, enrollment in Mississippi’s 15 junior and community colleges is up by more than 14,500 students, according to the preliminary numbers.
“Historically in a recession, community college enrollment goes up,” said Eric Clark, executive director of the state community college board.
In addition to costing less than four-year universities, he said, community colleges provide an opportunity for laid-off workers or those seeking more marketable skills to jump-start their careers.
Before last year, a few high schools already had access to tuition-guarantee programs in which students who met certain criteria would receive a free education at community colleges.
In 2008, however, the tuition guarantees were approved across the region for students entering school this fall.
Several counties passed tuition guarantee programs by partnering with development districts, foundations and private donors.
All five counties served by ICC – Itawamaba, Lee, Monroe, Chickasaw and Pontotoc – and all six counties served by EMCC – Clay, Lowndes, Oktibbeha, Noxubee, Kemper and Lauderdale – are participating in the tuition guarantee for 2009 high school graduates.
Union County and the city of Corinth are participating with NECC, and Calhoun County and Lafayette County guarantee tuition at NWCC.
Alcorn and Tippah counties have approved the program for the 2010 school year for students going to NECC.
At ICC, 676 students applied for the tuition guarantee program and 226 students are enrolled in the program, according to Vice President of Student Services Buddy Collins.
Many of those who applied for the program did not end up needing it because they also received other scholarships. Collins also said that 75 percent of the high schools’ graduating seniors in ICC’s district are attending the school.
NWCC has an increase of 105 students for Lafayette County and of 25 students in Calhoun County, according to Dan Smith, vice president of Student Affairs.
The school did not have precise figures for the number of students in the tuition guarantee program. NECC and EMCC also did not have those figures available.
“There was a lot of response” to the tuition-guarantee program, Collins said.
Tuition guarantees aren’t the only factors contributing to the enrollment spikes.
“You can tell by walking around on campus, we have a lot more adults and non-traditional students,” said Lynn Gibson, the associate dean of student services who also serves as school registrar at NECC.
The enrollment increases come as Mississippi struggles with education funding. Earlier this month, Gov. Haley Barbour cut funding to Mississippi’s community colleges by 5 percent. While having so many new students can help the schools replace some of that lost money, Clark said it isn’t enough, noting that tuition covers only about 27 percent of the cost of educating each student.
“People are coming to community colleges to make their lives better and we need to have the resources available to educate them,” Clark said.
Collins said ICC made plans for its growth in Tupelo by acquiring classrooms at the Belden Center and by adding parking lots. But the enrollment increase was so great the school is still facing the same issues with full classrooms and parking lots.
Said Smith at NWCC: “There is no place to park, classes are really full and the residence halls are really full. But it is a good problem to have.”

Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal