Portable buildings dot Mesa Community College. Like stretch marks, they represent rapid growth from an earlier era.
The college grew by 1,000 students a year for most of the past decade, leading the way as the Maricopa County Community College District became one of the nation’s largest higher-education systems.
Maricopa County’s population continues to grow exponentially.
But the college district is a shrinking giant.
Seven of the district’s 10 colleges lost students this school year. Enrollment numbers at the largest and most established colleges are dropping fastest, according to MCCCD data.
Since 2004, Scottsdale, Mesa and Glendale community colleges and Phoenix College have each lost 10 percent of their enrollment.
For the first time in recent memory, the colleges must worry how to get students, not just where to put them.
“It’s become an issue and I don’t think it’s ever been before, we were such a high growth market,” said Reyes Medrano, a Paradise Valley Community College business professor and president of the faculty association. “But it certainly is now.”
MCCCD officials blame the strong economy, changing demographics, state lawmakers, Proposition 300, Arizona State University and new private colleges. The district doesn’t know how much each of those is responsible for the losses, or even whether they’re responsible at all.
“It’s always been hard for community colleges to pinpoint some of the factors, in my opinion, that lead to students’ decisions,” said William Guerriero, head of academics at Chandler-Gilbert Community College.
The district is researching the phenomenon and several of the colleges have created programs to plug the drain by keeping their current students in class, said Tom Gariepy, MCCCD marketing director. “I don’t think any of our institutions view a decline in enrollment lightly at all.”
Where are the students going?
They might not be students at all, choosing to work instead of study.
“A lot of our people here are not getting an education because of love of the liberal arts,” Gariepy said.
Unemployment is low in Maricopa County — 97 percent of the work force has a job, according to the state Department of Economic Security — so fewer residents need more training or education to earn a living.
Two-year colleges often suffer when their region’s economy strengthens, said Arleen Arnsparger, a project manager with the Community College Survey of Student Engagement. To keep their classrooms full, colleges must work with the businesses that have taken their potential students.
For instance, on Maui in Hawaii, Arnsparger said, community colleges are partnering with the tourism industry to enroll employees. Otherwise, the island’s colleges cannot compete with well-paying jobs that don’t require a degree.
“It’s not job or school, it’s job and school,” she said.
MCCCD grew fastest in the late 1990s, a time of great economic prosperity and low unemployment. From 1997 to 1999, district data shows the colleges added more than 10,000 students — a 12 percent jump.
Gariepy said the district had pacts at the time with Motorola and other local firms to train employees. MCCCD has not been able to maintain those ties, or to replace them.
MCCCD also worries about ASU, where many of its students eventually transfer.
The university is intensely recruiting the county’s low-income students with financial aid packages the community colleges cannot match.
However, that effort is in its infancy, said Antonia Franco, director of the Access ASU program.
In the first two years of the program, ASU enrolled about 533 additional students from the school districts it had targeted across the Valley.
MCC alone lost 1,411 students during that time, district data shows. Phoenix College is down 1,116.
“While I’m sure we have contributed to it,” Franco said of MCCCD’s losses, “we’re young and we’re starting.”
At Scottsdale Community College, administrators have been meeting with groups across campus to figure out why the college has lost students four straight years. Several of the colleges are overhauling class schedules so that schoolwork better fits students’ lives, Gariepy said.
And, following Rio Salado College’s lead, the district will use technology to better communicate with students.
While most of the district is in decline, the newest, and the least traditional, colleges are rising or at least maintaining their enrollment.
Rio Salado has lived up to its original vision as a college “without walls” and is now MCCCD’s third largest college, enrolling more than 18,000 in classes this semester.
And its enrollment is up 13 percent since 2004, the year the district’s overall student population peaked.
About half of Rio Salado’s classes are offered online; the rest are in community centers and church annexes across the Valley. Its headquarters, a high-rise in Tempe, has almost nothing in common with a college campus.
Students “don’t have to commute to our campus during a certain time of day in order to get the instruction,” said Todd Simmons, Rio Salado’s vice president for business services.
The college’s students also are free to begin classes when they want, not when a semester begins. Rio Salado opens new sections of its courses 50 weeks of the year.
Of the colleges with traditional campuses, only CGCC has continued to significantly add students.
“You’ve got to point to the freeway opening,” Guerriero said of Loop 202’s Santan Freeway, which was completed in June 2006, down the street from the college. That artery has spurred a horde of developments and lured thousands of new residents.
On the other side of the county, Estrella Mountain Community College in Avondale has increased its number of full-time students.
Two-year colleges normally tout smaller class sizes and lower prices than the state’s public universities. MCCCD’s tuition and fees are about half the amount at ASU.
But they have virtually no financial aid to offer.
The state provides little money for university scholarships and none for community college students.
“Arizona has the lowest level of state funding for community and technical colleges of any other state in the country,” said Arnsparger, from the community college research group at the University of Texas.
That fact particularly hinders MCCCD’s colleges.
“Our students, in many cases, are among those who have the most financial difficulty,” Gariepy said.
However, that is nothing new, and MCCCD still became the largest community college system in the country.
Much of the district is frenzied over its enrollment woes, but is only speculating about what is causing them, said Medrano, the faculty association president. The problem is that too many high school graduates here shun college.
“We need to be more proactive about going out and getting them,” Medrano said.
Maricopa County community colleges and their enrollment change since 2005