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Sustaining Enrollment Growth in Difficult Financial Times

As more people head back to school in these recessionary times, many community colleges across the United States are struggling to handle the influx of new students. Unlike many colleges, Northwest Vista College, one of the fi ve Alamo Colleges in Texas, fi nds itself in a unique position, having used strategic planning since 1998 to prepare for and respond to enrollment growth. Over the last decade, the college has implemented creative strategies for realizing deliberate growth as well as managing unexpected growth.

Starting in 1998, Northwest Vista College had to develop systems to respond to annual enrollment increases of 30 to 32 percent. We did so using the core values of community and communication to successfully plan for enrollment growth. And by aligning, enrollment targets with the Alamo Colleges’ strategic plan, Northwest Vista College developed a systematic enrollment plan that is seamlessly integrated with retention, persistence and degree completion targets.

The Alamo Colleges established a partnership with local public school districts to launch College Connections in the spring of 2007. A cross-functional Connections Leadership team of Northwest Vista staff, through College Connections, visited 11 high schools to coordinate orientation, admissions, placement testing, advising, and registration to more than 4,500 high school seniors between September 2007 and May 2008. College Connections allowed college staff to provide intensive on-site services to all seniors. Additionally, College Connections allowed staff to target high schools with low college-going rates and large populations of Hispanic and African-American high school seniors, groups that have been underserved in San Antonio. Northwest Vista’s enrollment grew by 12 percent, and the number of Hispanic students increased by 71 percent.

Bringing larger numbers of students through the door is only a small piece of Northwest Vista College’s enrollment plan. The college deployed an entry-to-exit plan in fall 2007. Recruitment and enrollment are only the fi rst steps to helping students achieve their educational goal. Faculty and staff deploy intrusive advising. Developmental faculty counsel individual students who request to drop a course. Some students are moved to courses that better meet their schedule or learning needs while others are referred for intensive tutoring.

Student Success advisors use mandatory advising for students who want to drop a course but have less than 15 credit hours. Faculty and staff annually report the results of retention strategies and review persistence and degree completion targets. These college-wide reports and the dialogue result in better understanding of how each of us is playing a role in keeping each student in college and achieving his or her academic goal.

A coordinated strategic plan ensures enrollment growth is not an unexpected tsunami; rather it is a simple way to identify enrollment processes and systems that need change and to deploy changes in a thoughtful, cohesive way. However, if you’re suddenly fl ush with students, these additional strategies may prove helpful:

• Target students who have earned 45 hours and ensure those students have priority registration. This guarantees students who need specifi c courses to complete their degree are on the fast-track to do so. Individual e-mails, text messages or a degree completion blog can get the word out to this group of students. This strategy will communicate the importance of completing a degree and how your college is prioritizing this goal in the midst of the enrollment growth.

• Expand Internet and/or hybrid course offerings. When Northwest Vista College was experiencing its largest enrollment growth and had very limited classroom space, faculty embraced online or combination online/face-to-face (hybrid) delivery methods. A core group of full-time faculty mentored adjunct faculty in designing and delivering these courses. Full-time faculty led faculty development sessions focused on best practices.

• Off-site partnerships can ease enrollment stresses. Northwest Vista College was fortunate to lease a centrally located facility and offered a series of courses for students taking courses there. Students were able to complete three or more courses in a twoday format each semester.

• Consider reduced tuition for non-peakhour courses. Several years ago, Northwest Vista College, along with the other Alamo Colleges, provided reduced tuition for students who took courses in the afternoon (2 to 5 p.m.) when classrooms were more readily available.

• Offer courses early in the morning. Northwest Vista College faculty eagerly volunteered to teach 6:30 a.m. courses several years ago when enrollment growth outstripped classroom space. Offering these courses in a two-day schedule allowed students to complete two courses each semester.

In record numbers, workers looking to expand their skills and college students looking for an affordable education are turning to community colleges during this recession. We owe it to them to plan to take them in and to plan for their success.

— Dr. Elaine Lang is director of enrollment services at Northwest Vista College. The forum is sponsored in partnership with the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development (NISOD) at The University of Texas at Austin.

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