The week before the beginning of the fall semester is always a busy time on any college campus. For community colleges, it can be hectic, as we make final preparations for classes and work tirelessly to get as many students admitted and enrolled as we can. There is a connection between enrollments and finances at virtually every college or university. But of all sectors in higher education, two-year institutions experience the most volatile enrollment fluctuations. Community colleges are often the “safe school” recent high school graduates turn to when they discover they haven’t been admitted to the four-year institution of their choice. Those who started off at a four-year institution sometimes learn during the summer that they need further academic seasoning before they can return. (I’m sure it’s no easier now than it was 40-plus years ago to explain a 1.3 grade point average to parents.) Further, enrollment in community colleges for non-traditional adult students is directly related to the economy. Our enrollments rise and fall with the unemployment rate. And as open-access institutions, our admissions processes are more straightforward and easier to negotiate than other colleges or universities. That means potential students can wait until the last minute to apply and still be accepted for enrollment.
Because two-year institutions are generally unable to draw upon big endowments, federal grants, or private support for financial resources, we rely much more heavily on tuition revenue and (or) enrollment-based funding models from the state to ensure fiscal health. So each summer, a common question at gatherings of community college leaders is “How are your numbers?” Getting people in the front door often seems like Job One for community colleges.
At Durham Tech, we have focused considerable attention on making it easier for students to get through that front door. In the face of rising costs for students, we have worked hard to make it easier for students to pay for college. In addition to nearly $20 million in federal and state aid, this year we will be disbursing as much as $900,000 in local financial assistance to residents of Durham and Orange counties. Durham Tech is the only community college in the state to award local funds for direct scholarships and enhanced work-study opportunities. We continue to provide every Durham Tech student with a “GoTriangle” Bus Pass to ensure transportation is not a barrier to attendance. And beginning this year we have instituted a payment plan so students who want to attend but are unable to pay the full cost of tuition up front can still enroll. Our ConnectSession orientations and our mandatory College Success Course for all first-time students are intended to make the front door experience informative and welcoming.
But we know that getting students in the front door is not enough. While President of Tallahassee Community College, my colleague Dr. William Law (now President of St. Petersburg College) defined student success as “getting students to finish what they start.” And we are adopting that as our mantra at Durham Tech. Whatever endeavor they undertake, we want our students to finish what they start. If someone starts the admissions process, we want them to complete that process. Once they are admitted, we want them to follow through by enrolling. And once enrolled, we want them to attend. We want students to stay engaged throughout the class meeting, to complete the reading assignment, to finish the test. We want them to complete the course, complete the semester, complete the year, persist beyond that first year and, ultimately, complete the degree.
Enrollments will always be critically important to us, because enrollments will always be the primary factor in our funding model, and because students can’t finish what they don’t start. And we all know of cases where individuals leave before graduation because of a great job opportunity and we are quick to point to those cases when someone criticizes community colleges for poor graduation rates. But pointing that out is (in the words of Dr. Kay McClenney) “hiding behind the truth.” While completion does not guarantee success, we all know that students are far more likely to be successful as completers than those who do not complete. As Durham Tech’s first and most important strategic goal is “All students will succeed,” it’s critically important that we redouble our efforts to help our students finish what they start.
Dr. Bill Ingram
President, Durham Technical Community College