By Thara Babineau

There are countless influences that contribute to a college’s vitality, and while many can be considered important, few are as impactful as enrollment. Enrollment trends can dictate choices that touch upon every affiliate of a college, from staff and faculty to each individual student. A decline in enrollment is generally cause for concern, and it appears that Cape Cod Community College (4Cs) should be concerned based on the newly released enrollment figures for the current spring 2018 semester, which reveal an 8% decline from the spring 2017 semester and a 16.4% decline from the fall 2017 semester, based on combined numbers of all three major areas of enrollment: student headcount, credit hours, and full-time enrollment.

“This semester it’s [enrollment] down slightly,” said 4Cs President, Dr. John Cox. “But traditionally, when you look at the year, spring tends to be down over the fall, so some of this was not totally unexpected and we were above where we projected we would be, so things, while they’re not perfect, there are some good signs.”

President Cox use of the word “slightly” to describe the rather significant decline is indicative of his positive outlook for the future of enrollment, and his confidence in the efforts both initiated and/or overseen by Dean of Enrollment Management & Advising Services, Christine McCarey, to turn things around.

“Enrollment is tricky,” said McCarey. “It’s hard to pinpoint one thing that impacts each student’s enrollment and so we look at a variety of different factors.”

The factors that McCarey has found to affect enrollment numbers the greatest are those involved in student life outside of school. She has identified that there is a strong correlation between each student’s capacity and flexibility in maintaining a functional balance between work, family, and school, and the enrollment figures.

“The students work, sometimes they’re supporting their siblings, sometimes they’re supporting their families and then sometimes they just have to support themselves,” said McCarey. “But our goal is to try to make higher education and 4Cs a priority in the student’s life so that we can get them through here, to help them get that credential and then move on, onto the workforce or to a 4-year institution.”

While working and going to school simultaneously is nothing new, the majority of students’ choice to not make higher education a priority over their other obligation or pursuits, seems to be.

“Much of the challenge of this is how do we convince students, both future students and students that are already enrolled, that higher education is such a priority in life,” said Cox. “That you really need to participate in it, and you need to take advantage of the education opportunity whether you’re earning a certificate, or whether you’re starting out on your trek to doctorate, or whether you’re just just coming in to sort of test the waters in certain fields and see if there’s any interest.”

Helping students see why higher education must remain a top priority is a motivating factor in McCarey’s initiatives to draw in students to 4Cs. There are several ways that 4Cs staff and faculty have managed to reach both current and prospective students, to deliver the message of how important a college education is for their future, and to help them get started in the pursuit of higher education before it runs the risk of being knocked off their list of priorities by other matters.

“From the enrollment management side, we try to look at the data to find out where we need to strategize and make any adjustment and modifications to current initiatives or strategies that we’re doing,” said McCarey. “It could be recruitment, it could be retention initiatives, and that’s challenging, but we do that yearly to look at what worked and what didn’t. We have to be able to reflect on recruitment strategies that we’ve done and really determine whether they were effective or not. And if not, how can we make slight adjustments moving into the next year, so that they are effective and that’s part of our planning process and it’s really ongoing.”

One of the current methods McCarey is keeping an eye on is the Pathways Program, which targets prospective college students who are still enrolled in high school. Through agreements with local high schools, 4Cs offers “On-Site Application Day”, where students are transported from their high school to 4Cs campus to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and participate in On-Site Assessment Testing and Advising Center activities qualify for the opportunity to apply for the Pathways Program Scholarship Award, in the amount of $1000.

gender distribution 2014-2018
Gender Distribution over 5 year trend Photo Credit Cape Cod Community College

“We have tweaked and changed the Pathways Program in the last 5 to 8 years,” said McCarey. “Before we were bringing our entire enrollment operations to the high schools, and it was really costing the institution a lot of money to do that because it’s not funded through a grant. Initially, when it began, it was a grant and then when that grant ran out we were still bringing financial aid staff and advisors to the schools, and so we looked at the cost analysis for that, and instead we worked with the high schools and found they were willing and committed to transporting the students here to the institution. Before we made that adjustment, we were spinning our wheels in a lot of different directions to run this program, and I think now that we’ve made the adjustment, we get a better yield rate of students that actually go through the pathways program and then enroll in classes and start here in the fall. We’ve seen that number change for the better, so I feel that, that’s a direction we want to keep going in; that is a good example of looking at past strategies of what we’ve done, including looking at the cost analysis and the enrollment of students (through that initiative), and realizing bringing the student here actually helped get them through the door in September.”

On the retention side, advising for current students has also been adjusted in response to enrollment figures. Advising now encourages a broader relationship between faculty and students, to give students more awareness of what support systems the college has in place for them.

“Within the past 3 years, we’ve created our holistic advising,” said McCarey. “We are not just advising just for choosing courses, but we’re trying to work with students in a more holistic fashion so that we can connect them to the resources they need.”

While these changes are positive and generate hope for enrollment to rise, the current enrollment figures, and those of previous semesters, which all featuring heavy declines, insist upon alternative ways to sustain 4Cs moving forward. Fortunately, greater changes have been proposed that should help to halt the dwindling enrollment numbers.

“We talk a lot more about some shared services that we can look to combine and also areas that we can really tighten the link with the academic programs or the vocational programs,” said Cox. “I think the next iteration that we’re looking at is on the side of perhaps the dual admission, and we’ve started it to a certain extent here with the nursing; when you’re accepted into the nursing program at 4Cs, you’re also accepted into U-Mass Boston’s BSN program which is offered here at the college. I think looking into the future, you’ll see more of those types of relationships really come into existence.”

There is certainly no lack of effort to address the enrollment decline issue as far as 4Cs staff is concerned, but it is important that the 4Cs student body and the Cape Cod community at large consider how they can assist, as well.

“I think word of mouth helps,” said McCarey. “I think talking to other students, or going back to your high school or communities, or neighborhoods, and talking about the positive experience that you might have here at the institution is always beneficial.”

At any rate, despite what story the enrollment numbers have told thus far, President Cox is unwavering in his belief that through planning ahead and keeping enrollment recruitment and retention efforts strong, those who are concerned about the future of 4Cs can look forward to a happy ending.

“While were down, I don’t want to cast this image that things are bad,” said Cox. “Enrollment is down slightly for the semester, but from a planning perspective we had a more conservative estimate going in for the entire year, so we’re better off than we would’ve been had we not done that. We are optimistic moving forward that we will see a longer-term upturn.”