- Associated Press - Sunday, March 6, 2016

BECKLEY, W.Va. (AP) - Despite a decline in enrollment, West Virginia’s community and technical colleges are awarding more degrees than ever, reaching nontraditional students by retraining displaced coal miners.

Dr. Sarah Tucker, chancellor of the West Virginia Council for Community and Technical College Education, explained West Virginia’s enrollment numbers are following a national trend that correlates to the state’s unemployment rates.

The community and technical college system saw a major spike in enrollment in 2009 when many people had returned to college during the recession.

The community and technical college system has since seen an 18.7 percent decline in enrollment between 2010 and 2014. While those dips were most significant between 2011-2012 and 2013-2014, Tucker believes enrollment is beginning to stabilize.

There were 21,986 students enrolled in community colleges in 2014, that number was 21,049 for the 2015 school year.

“There is still a decline, but it is much less of a decline,” she said.

Enrollment over the past five years has dropped the most for West Virginia Northern Community College in Wheeling (45 percent), Mountwest Community and Technical College in Huntington (35.2 percent), WVU at Parkersburg (32.1 percent) and New River Community and Technical College in Beckley (31 percent).

New River Community and Technical College attributes part of a $1.85 million shortfall in their fiscal year 2015 budget to a decline in enrollment, confirmed Public Relations Manager Jenni Canterbury.

New River “is not alone in experiencing this trend. Across the country, colleges and universities have seen enrollment drop, and in West Virginia we have both a declining number of high school graduates attending college and a decrease in population,” she said.

New River, she said, is competing with other institutions for a dwindling number of students.

The West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission reported the overall college-going rate for high school graduates decreased from 55.9 to 54.6 percent between 2013 and 2014.

The number of high school graduates who are attending college in-state has decreased from 48.2 to 48.1 during the same time.

Since 2010, the overall college-going rate has gone down 4.2 percent, 2.2 percent for students staying in West Virginia.

Tucker noted that community colleges across the state are seeing financial strains due to a decline in enrollment, but they are also struggling under state cuts.

She estimates legislative cuts in higher education total around 20 percent over the past four years.

“We are limiting some of the services we are able to provide and the marketing budgets for community colleges have been flushed. Marketing has had to be cut because it is not a direct service to students. There is a lot of trickle-down effect from appropriations cuts,” Tucker said.

Canterbury stressed that while traditional enrollment is down, New River is partnering with local high schools to facilitate career pathways and to expand the opportunities for students to easily transfer to four-year degrees.

One of the largest projects boosting community college enrollment across the state will targeting nontraditional students - displaced workers, like miners.

WorkForce West Virginia has been awarded a $7.4 million National Emergency Grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to provide education and retraining for displaced working, specifically coal miners and their families. Area colleges are partnering with Workforce to retrain these workers.

Canterbury said the grant provides up to $5,000 per participant, many of whom are expected to take advantage of New River’s Commercial Driver’s License, Welding and Electrical Distribution Engineering Technology programs.

Tucker explained, “We believe that training, particularly the accelerated learning through CTC (community and technical college) system will lead displaced coal miners to life changing experiences. We have a challenge to meet folks needs and a challenge to get the word out there about what we offer. We have to make sure people know the CTC system provides training opportunities that lead to jobs.”

Despite a decline in enrollment, community and technical colleges are seeing an uptick in the number of certificates and degrees awarded, meaning more and more students are completing their program of study.

New River awarded 216 degrees in 2011 and 307 in 2015.

Those numbers reflect that statewide trenf. Last year the entire community and technical college system awarded 4,797 degrees, up 101 from the year before.

Since 2010, there has been a 50.4 percent increase in degree awards, said Tucker.

Enrollment across West Virginia’s public four-year institutions is also down 2.5 percent from 2013-2014 and 5.4 percent from 2010-2014, according to the Higher Education Policy Commission’s 2015 report.

Only West Virginia State University in Institute (7.7 percent), WVU Institute of Technology in Montgomery (5.2 percent) and Glenville State College in Glenville (1.4 percent) saw an increase in enrollment between 2013-2014.

The largest declines during the same period were Bluefield State College in Bluefield (11.5 percent) and Concord University in Athens (10.9 percent).

Greg King, vice president for enrollment at Concord, said Fall 2014 represents the lowest enrollment in recent years with only 650 new students. Fall 2015 has seen some growth with 711 new students.

Moreover, for Fall 2016, the college has already seen more applications than 2014 and 2015 combined.

“It has definitely been a challenge, throughout the state, to maintain enrollment. As the state and region are seeing declines in high school graduates and the college going rate, we have been forced to take action,” he said.

To combat this decline, the college has focused on retention rates as well as recruiting out-of-state students, particularly from the Roanoke, Greensboro and Winston-Salem areas, King said.

“Many students and families would enjoy a smaller classroom experience, just like the one Concord provides, but they do not want to pay private college/university tuition. West Virginia has done an excellent job of maintaining affordable tuition, and even at the higher out-of-state tuition rate, we are still a great value for students and families,” he added.

Concord University has also cut expenses to compensate for reduced enrollment revenue and state appropriations.

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Information from: The Register-Herald, http://www.register-herald.com

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