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.
“As potential students find positions in the labor force, some choose not to begin or complete their college studies,” he said.
The enrollment decline at Oklahoma's community colleges mirrors a national trend. Norma Kent, a spokeswoman for the American Association of Community Colleges, said an inverse relationship exists between community college enrollment and the economy overall — when economic conditions are poor, enrollment goes up.
In a poor economy, people go back to school for additional training or to change careers, she said. That's especially true of people who are unemployed, she said, since they often see college as a way to get back to work.
But as the recovery begins to take hold, she said, more of those students are finding work, meaning they're less interested in attending community colleges.
The picture isn't without bright spots, however. Both Western Oklahoma State College and the Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology expect to see enrollment growth. OSUIT is projecting 2.4 percent growth, and Western Oklahoma State College expects a 2.9 percent increase.
Ina Agnew, OSUIT's vice president of student services, said she had been unsure about how the school's enrollment numbers would fare following changes to the federal financial aid system.
Beginning with the 2012-13 academic year, students were required to have a high school diploma or a GED to qualify for federal financial aid, including Pell Grants. While the change had minimal impact at four-year colleges and universities, community colleges have expressed concern about how the change would affect their students.
About 30 percent of OSUIT's students don't have a high school diploma or GED, Agnew said. Those students generally graduate at the same rate as students with diplomas, she said, but the change puts federal financial aid off limits to those students.
Agnew said she thinks the enrollment growth came as a result of practical decisions students made about their education. OSUIT's programs feed into industries in Oklahoma, making the school a good bet for students looking to start their careers.
“I believe they're looking at the bottom line — what is the purpose of pursuing this college degree?” she said.