Even as enrollment grows at their four-year counterparts, many community colleges in Oklahoma are seeing their projected enrollments decline.
Enrollment numbers won't be finalized until later this month, but most community colleges throughout Oklahoma are projecting flat or dropping enrollment for the fall 2012 semester. After several years of booming growth, officials say the change is more of a correction than an outright decline.
The picture at community colleges stands in stark contrast to that of Oklahoma's public four-year colleges and universities, where enrollment is expected to continue growing.
Oklahoma's three largest universities — the University of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State University and the University of Central Oklahoma — all project record enrollment growth this year, with OSU welcoming the largest freshman class in state history.
The enrollment dip at the state's two-year institutions comes after several years of steady enrollment growth. Officials say the decline could have been caused by a number of factors, including federal financial aid changes and even the economic recovery.
Gary Davidson, director of the Oklahoma Association of Community Colleges, said he suspects the same growth the sector experienced over the past few years might have led to the declines those colleges are seeing today.
Over the past decade, community college enrollment jumped from 88,000 students in 2000 to 117,553 in 2010.
That growth has come at a time when the state's public higher education system overall has seen growth — between 2009 and 2011, the higher education system added over 16,000 students.
“That's like adding a whole new campus,” Davidson said. “It's not just going to grow exponentially every year.”
The sharpest projected drop in Oklahoma is at Northern Oklahoma College. Preliminary numbers show a 7.8 percent drop, falling from 5,206 students in fall 2011 to 4,798 in fall 2012.
Such a large drop in enrollment could have implications for the college's budget. Sheri Snyder, a spokeswoman for the college, said tuition and fees make up 57 percent of the college's $24.8 million budget.
One of the factors that has contributed to that decline, Snyder said, is low unemployment and a steadily improving economy.
Adult students make up a large percentage of the college's student base, she said, and many of those potential students are going to work in the oil and gas industry rather than enrolling in college.
Both community colleges in the Oklahoma City area also expect to see their enrollments drop. Rose State College is forecasting a 3.4 percent drop, while Oklahoma City Community College expects a 5.7 percent decline.
Rose State College spokesman John Cain said the decline isn't alarming, particularly after three years of growth. Cain cited economic improvements and low unemployment in the Oklahoma City area as a reason for the decline.