By BRANDON HOWELL
Capital News Service
LANSING – Community colleges are experiencing record enrollments, and those in Southwest Michigan are part of the trend, with more students and more academic and career programs.
David Mathews, president of Southwestern Michigan College (SMC), said his school saw a 10-percent increase in enrollment in the fall semester, as well as a 20-percent increase in the winter.
“We attribute about half of that to the current economic situation,” he said.
Michael Hansen, president of the Michigan Community College Association, said upward-trending enrollments during poor economic periods are common.
When community colleges “do well, that means other people are suffering,” he said. “Historically, you’ll see community colleges do this counter-cyclically with the economy.”
Mathews credits the rest of the increase to student life initiatives aimed at making SMC a first-choice option.
“We did a lot of surveying of students and what we found is that their visions of going away to college are exactly that — going away to college,” he said.
SMC opened its first dormitories last fall and filled them to their 130-person capacity.
It will open another set of dormitories with the same capacity in the fall.
Mathews said the college also invested $7 million in remodeling the old gymnasium. That building – now double its original size – opened last fall as a student union and activities center.
“We have game rooms and a coffee bar and a place where we show movies,” he said. “In addition, there are state-of-the-art athletic facilities.”
Mathews said the availability of faculty may limit further enrollment growth, however.
“We will not just open new sections of classes if we don’t have qualified faculty to teach in them,” he said.
Mathews said the college added one full-time faculty member last year and plans to hire two to three more for fall 2010.
Mathews also said the college has doubled the size of some popular courses, such as a class on world religions, by adding support personnel for the instructors. “We’ve gone from 24 students to 48 students and from 28 to 56 students in some of those classes.”
The college will not cap general enrollment, Mathews said, but is doing so in certain programs that require smaller student-to-instructor ratios, such as nursing.
Lake Michigan College is experiencing a similar escalation in enrollment.
“In the fall we were up 19 percent in head count and 21 percent in credit hours,” said Laura Kraklau, its director of marketing services. “Currently for the winter semester, we’re up 18 percent in head count and 27 percent in credit hours.”
The college opened new sections in classes that are in higher demand with added enrollment, such as biology and accounting, Kraklau said.
“We watch the enrollment trends,” she said. “As we see enrollment increasing, we plan ahead for classes filling up and try to find instructors who can teach additional sections.”
Kraklau said the college’s four campuses have been able to accommodate the increased enrollment by adding adjunct instructors.
It also is adding programs to its curriculum, Kraklau said.
For example, in a partnership with Michigan State University’s Institute of Agricultural Technology, the college offers agricultural certificates for viticulture and applied plant science programs.
The college also initiated an energy program about a year ago in response to the area’s two nuclear plants’ anticipated hiring needs.
“Both of those plants are projecting that within the next five years they’re going to need several hundred workers to replace people who will be retiring,” Kraklau said, “so we’ve added a training program in cooperation with both of the nuclear plants to help address that need.”
Lake Michigan College has also opened a new medical imaging career center and has started programs in ultrasound and MRI.
Kraklau said the focus is on employment opportunities in Southwest Michigan.
“We’ve added programs that are addressing the changing employment picture as we come out of this recession,” she said. “As our local businesses’ needs change, we’re reacting to those needs.”
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.