2014-05-21 / Front Page

The new college try

Post-recession, John Tyler rides a wave of rising enrollments
By Rich Griset

Ed Grier, dean of Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Business, delivers the commencement address at John Tyler Community College’s graduation last week. Since the recession started, enrollment at John Tyler has grown by more than 40 percent. Ed Grier, dean of Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Business, delivers the commencement address at John Tyler Community College’s graduation last week. Since the recession started, enrollment at John Tyler has grown by more than 40 percent. Earlier this month, John Tyler Community College broke ground on a three-story, 70,000-square-foot facility at its Midlothian campus.

Scheduled to open fall of next year, the new facility will boast an outdoor classroom and learning lab, a black box teaching theater, classrooms, fitness and dance space, a small café and other amenities.

The project represents something of a shift in the higher education landscape. During the prolonged economic downturn, many spurned the higher tuitions of four-year colleges and opted for less expensive two-year schools such as John Tyler, which offer curriculums more focused on job training and a quicker path to employment.

More than 900 students graduated from John Tyler last week. More than 900 students graduated from John Tyler last week. In the past few years, rising enrollment at community colleges has shifted their role in higher learning.

“From 2007 to 2011 there was a tremendous increase in enrollment,” said Ray Drinkwater, John Tyler’s vice president for student affairs. “We were growing by 10 percent or more, really tremendous growth.”

Drinkwater, who has 40 years of experience at John Tyler, said community colleges usually see temporary enrollment spikes during periods of economic turmoil. The depth and length of the recession that started in 2007 – the economy is still reverberating from its aftershocks

– led to sustained enrollment increases at two-year colleges as people who lost their jobs sought additional training or new career paths.

John Tyler experienced its biggest growth with students seeking to use community college as a stepping stone to four-year institutions, Drinkwater said. Rapidly rising tuitions at four year schools – Virginia Commonwealth University, for example, has increased tuition for in-state students by more than 30 percent since 2010 – led many families to send their kids to community college as a more economical way to get an education.

It used to be that students who came to a community college with the intent to transfer were building up their academic background before heading to a four-year institution, Drinkwater said. Now, many academically successful students go to community college straight out of high school before attending elsewhere.

“Coming to community college is no longer a second or third choice,” Drinkwater said. “Students that could have gone to Harvard or Yale choose to come here.”

The second-choice perception of community colleges is changing as more become aware of transfer options. Many two-year schools, such as John Tyler, offer guaranteed admissions agreements to certain four-year colleges – if students meet grade and curriculum requirements, of course.

“We have a proven track record,” Drinkwater said. “Individuals know individuals who started here and went on to a four-year institution and were very successful.”

Agreements have also been put in place for guaranteed enrollment into specific programs. A student in John Tyler’s pre-social work program, for example, can receive guaranteed enrollment into Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Social Work.

For Chesterfield student Sean Mayers, the combination of cost-effectiveness, proximity to home and academics made John Tyler the choice for him.

“It’s cheaper than a four-year institution, and to my surprise, the education is still really good compared to a four-year university,” said Mayers, who owns a cleaning service. “I didn’t know you could go this far in a program and transfer your classes over.”

Mayers previously earned a bachelor’s in political science from Hampton University, but says he’s always wanted to pursue engineering. After he completes his two years at community college, he hopes to transfer to Virginia Commonwealth University or the University of Virginia.

“They’re a good institution, and they’ve got something going on,” he said of John Tyler. “I actually made friends, and I like the faculty.”

The influx of transfer students, however, has caused some growing pains. Drinkwater said the shift has taxed the school’s student support services. These younger students tend to spend more time on campus, and demand more tutoring, advising and student organizations. Community colleges used to be the domain of commuter, or night-school students – the working class primarily taking courses after work.

“It put a great strain on our resources,” Drinkwater said. “They need greater assistance, greater support, and that has placed a greater burden on us from an administrative perspective.”

Since the economy has picked up, John Tyler and other community colleges have seen a dip in enrollment. Kent Phillippe, associate vice president with the American Association of Community Colleges, says there are fewer people attending school for retraining, and more appear to be willing to pay the cost of attending four-year institutions.

Before the recession, community colleges were growing at a steady but slow rate. Based on data from a report released last week by the National Student Clearinghouse, after the initial spike during the recession, Phillippe said the growth during the past few years has leveled out.

“It will probably grow again after leveling off, but it won’t be the same spike,” Phillippe said. “I would not be surprised to see again slow, steady growth.”

To stay relevant, John Tyler has introduced more online classes, including five degree programs that will be available entirely online by the fall. The school also has a number of hybrid online/ in-person courses.

“Now folks are starting to get more employment. It’s better than it was, so [enrollment] started to decline a bit,” agreed Bill Fiege, John Tyler’s vice president of academic affairs. “But now we’re back up 1 percent this semester because we’ve worked to stay current.”

To aid in this effort, John Tyler is embracing trending STEM career tracks, which includes advanced manufacturing, engineering, welding, health care, nursing and others.

“We think we’re the greatest value to get students where they want to go,” Fiege said. “We’re one-third the cost of a four-year institution. As the cost of higher education continues to escalate, people are seeing more and more the value of community college.”

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