This fall, Utah’s colleges and universities are filled to the brink, experiencing an unprecedented enrollment surge. To meet the demand, schools are promoting online classes more than ever before, hiring more instructors, adding more class sections and even adding extra terms.
The Utah System of Higher Education (USHE) reports enrollment for the fall 2010 semester grew by 6,389 full-time equivalent students, an increase of 6.2 percent. “This is the third straight year enrollment has seen strong growth, with each institution seeing growth in full-time equivalent students,” says Holly Braithwaite, director of communications for USHE.
According to USHE, a simple headcount includes all students enrolled at an institution, while “full time equivalent” approximates the number of students enrolled full-time each semester in the state’s nine public colleges and universities.
Although economists believe that layoffs and fewer job prospects in today’s economy have played a role in the enrollment surge, Salt Lake Community College spokesman Joy Tlou thinks positively when reflecting on the cause. “Sure, people are between jobs, but other students are recognizing economic turmoil as an opportunity. They go to school energized, wanting to improve their skills and job prospects,” he says.
Utah Commissioner of Higher Education William Sederburg says a sure way to secure a better economic future is through education. “If you are laid off or unsure of your future, now is a good time to do school, because you’re not under a lot of pressure. A lot of people who have been meaning to go back have been doing just that,” he says.
Creative Responses to Budget Cuts
Although this fiscal year saw higher education budget cuts of 12 percent, that rate is much improved compared to the 22 percent cut in 2008. To accommodate student demand and enrollment growth, the Regents’ budget request calls for $11.5 million in new state funding.
In the meantime, schools like SLCC are getting creative when it comes to the flood of new students. SLCC is facing an all-time high of more than 34,000 students—the highest enrollment in the state.
In order for SLCC to fulfill its commitment to quality in the face of increased enrollment, says Tlou, the school opened a second fall term in mid-October. Compressed to eight weeks, the semester features 62 sections spread across SLCC’s 13 locations. These sections are providing high-demand, required introductory courses in core areas.
However, while the extra term added 1,600 seats this fall, only 550 of them will be first-time SLCC students. Retention rates across the state have grown as more people recognize the value of education in today’s competitive workforce in a lackluster economy.
SLCC’s plan to address higher enrollment is fourfold, with flexibility at the forefront. First, Tlou says the school doubled efforts in academic advising. It also boosted online offerings along with blended classes, which meet primarily online. And early in the year, SLCC launched a campaign encouraging students to sign up for summer classes, successfully taking some of the pressure off of fall semester. Finally, the college developed the shortened eight-week fall term, giving more students the opportunity to take classes while keeping class sizes small.
Investing in the Future
Although enrollment across the state has increased 23 percent over the past three years, Sederburg believes enrollment will probably drop a bit in the coming years, but still remain high. “The odds are pretty good that this will be the maximum enrollment for some time,” he says.
For many, the logical answer would be to put a cap on enrollment and turn away students as a result of such high enrollment and residual budget cuts. Yet every state school is striving to provide a quality education to every person who is looking for one. Sederburg says he’s proud of the way schools are stepping up to the plate, doing all they can to help the maximum number of students.
“We don’t know what the limit is exactly, and there will always be challenges. But at some point, funding has to catch up or quality could suffer. This means citizens have to be supportive of change and invest in the future of education,” says Sederburg.