Higher education institutions in Battle Creek and Kalamazoo are continuing to gain traction among a wide range of students including those enrolling for their first-ever college experience and those coming back for a degree or certification that could lead to a better job.
But even as enrollment continues to increase or stabilize, the colleges and universities in Southwest Michigan remain conservative in their approaches to capital expenditures and hiring additional faculty – all the while paying attention to demand in the local market.
Kalamazoo College is preparing to welcome a near-record class of 464 freshman this September, an increase of 124 from last year’s incoming class. Jeff Palmer, spokesman for K College, said the school is working to get its student body up to 1,500 from the current 1,400.
He said it is not uncommon to have some students who commit to attending the school change their minds over the summer for various reasons. Palmer refers to this as the “summer melt” which so far has not happened.
“We have to fight for each and every one of those students who melt away,” Palmer said. “This year, we have way more students than we budgeted for.”
The budget was set in advance for 375 students.
“If we have 464 coming in, that means having extra money,” Palmer said. “We may have to hire some faculty members and staff, but we don’t want to hire a lot of extra people. Once we reach 1,500 students, we’ll have additional dorm rooms and seats in the cafeteria filled. This also gives us a more diverse student body.”
This focus on diversity will be enhanced with the opening in early 2014 of the Arcus Center for Social Justice. The center is expected to attract a lot of visiting scholars, experts, teachers and activists from the social justice world, in addition to being a local center for people in the community.
The incoming class includes 112 students who self-report as students of color and 34 international, degree-seeking students.
And should these students decide to apply to a medical school or law school after graduation, they won’t have to look too far for options.
That’s because Western Michigan University is recruiting is first medical school class for 2014 and is finalizing an affiliation with Thomas M. Cooley Law School.
“The addition of those two professional degrees to the university will dramatically enhance our graduate education offerings and lead to some additional economic development opportunities throughout the region,” said Cheryl Roland, director of community relations for WMU. “Kalamazoo and Battle Creek — where our med school partners Borgess and Bronson have a major presence — will experience that strongly.”
WMU also has introduced new degree programs designed to leverage market demand in some of the school’s strongest academic areas.
“We’ve also introduced a number of accelerated programs aimed at helping students earn both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in five years at a lower cost,” Roland said. “We have more than a dozen such programs in disciplines in which a master’s degree is the preferred professional credential. Six of those programs are in engineering disciplines.”
Through a partnership with the region’s two largest community colleges — Kalamazoo Valley Community College and Kellogg Community College in Battle Creek — WMU is the site for a new Veterans Administration VetSuccess program that dramatically enhances outreach and services for veterans, Roland said.
KCC and KVCC continue to tweak and tailor their course offerings to meet the demands of the changing employment environment. When the economy tanked, enrollment at community colleges picked up especially among students who weren’t able to afford the cost of a four-year institution.
As a result, officials at both community colleges made a deliberate decision to work with area businesses to determine what their employment needs were and how they could better prepare students to step into these jobs.
Dennis Bona, president of KCC, said the college continues to grow programs in areas where there is a high demand. Based on an unduplicated headcount for one year, enrollment is at about 15,000.
“We [knew] when we were experiencing dramatic enrollment increases that that was temporary,” Bona said. “We were very careful not to invest both facility- and staffing-wise in a long-term way for what was going to be a short-term increase in enrollment. We’re not really going to be hurt in terms of our ability to serve students.”
Recently, the National Center for Education Statistics released its Projections of Education Statistics to 2021, which forecasts higher education enrollments will increase a mere 15 percent between 2010 and 2021. That represents a projected compounded annual growth rate of 1.25 percent. To put that figure in perspective, higher education grew at a compounded annual rate of 3.52 percent between fall 1996 and fall 2010.
With these projections in mind, the report said there is little doubt that enrollment growth will slow over the next decade. Furthermore, demographic shifts will lead to regional variations in these enrollment projections, with the Northeast and upper Midwest particularly hard hit. These demographic shifts indicate the traditional student cohort is becoming more ethnically diverse, less able to pay for college, and less prepared for the rigors of post-secondary education.
KVCC has engaged the services of Noel-Levitz, a nationally recognized higher education consultant, to address information from that report.
“We believe that we can refine our ability to more effectively communicate the value of a Kalamazoo Valley education,” said Linda Depta, director of college relations at KVCC.
In late September the college, which has had annual enrollment as high as 12,500 students, will also begin its next Mechatronic Systems Technician Academy, a program that will graduate its first class on Aug. 15. Upon course completion, these highly skilled technicians will have mastered the competencies needed to work on all the components of modern machinery, electrical devices, control systems, mechanical equipment and fluid power systems.
KVCC’s Wind Turbine Technician Academy remains the premier training program in the United States for entry-level technicians, Depta said, adding that students from around the world participate in the academy and that the program earned the seal of approval from the American Wind Energy Association.
“This career academy, like others offered at Kalamazoo Valley, is developed to fill an employer need for new hires,” Depta said. “By aligning with industry demand, through plant visits, consortium work groups and one-on-one interviews, occupation specific competencies are identified. Career academy instructors are experienced subject matter experts that can create learning paths for students to become proficient and able to demonstrate exactly what they can do.”
In Battle Creek, Bona said the programs KCC offers must graduate students where the jobs actually exist.
“We need to make sure programs have the enrollment. We can’t afford to take on programs that are heavily underwritten,” Bona said. “We’ve had a sharp turn upwards in the need for people to work in advanced manufacturing.”
KCC is putting resources into these manufacturing programs, including newer programs such as alternative energy because the need for technicians in that field continues to grow, he said. In addition, KCC’s flagship programs in health care — including nursing — are continually being studied because they are expensive to run due to low student-to-teacher ratios required for accreditation standards.
“Nursing and the whole area of health care is growing and shrinking at the same time,” Bona said.
The School of Nursing at Miller College, located next to KCC, has a nurse applicant component. This means that students sitting on an RN waiting list at a community college may begin taking their core curriculum courses at Miller College until they are accepted into the RN program.
“At this point, they would step out and complete their RN licensure and then return to Miller College to complete their (bachelor of science in nursing),” said Jennifer Andrews, spokeswoman for the college.
A junior/senior level institution, the college opened in 2005 and also has a School of Education, School of Business and School of Arts & Sciences. In the fall of 2012, the school had 367 students enrolled.
“We expect a 2.5-percent increase in enrollment for the fall 2013 semester,” Andrews said.