Credit: Thinkstock/Maksymka

College Invests in Itself During Enrollment Dip

By Rebecca L. Weber

Enrollment at Guilford Technical Community College has shrunk, but the college is building toward the future.

Due to declining enrollments nationwide, many community colleges are scaling back programs and making difficult cuts. Both the budget and the student body at North Carolina’s Guilford Technical Community College (GTCC) have shrunk over the last few years.

But not the physical size and scope of the college. Construction has been a constant at GTCC over the last five years: Four new buildings and two new campuses were just completed or are under construction. The college recently opened a $10 million aviation project and has a $25 million transportation project in the works.

Serious expansion in the face of declining enrollment might sound incongruous to some, but GTCC President Randy Parker believes this is a good time to invest in new programs.

“We have to have the long view in higher education and community college leadership,” Parker says. The declines in enrollment he’s experienced over the decades have been short-lived and cyclical. “It’s like a business curve. We’re in the valley here. Things are going to turn around; the economy is going to turn around.

Current budgetary status

More GTCC students are taking developmental courses, which is one contributing factor to the dip in the budget. In the short term, that means students are paying for fewer credits, but successful completion of these courses could mean higher completion rates in a few years.

Nonetheless, these years of low enrollment have taken a real toll on the institution. Particularly difficult has been the elimination of staff members whose services are no longer needed.

Still, Parker says that having to end some programs and scrutinize inefficiencies can be a good thing. “Growth forgives a lot of sins. When you’ve got a lot of money, you’re looking for a way to spend it,” he says. Today’s budgetary environment requires clear-eyed assessments. “This is a time to close programs — those programs that are not generating revenue [or] that aren’t serving a need.”

Building for the future

Some programs are popular with students but don’t lead to employment. That’s not the way forward for GTCC — or any community college. The college’s building boom is focused on training students for employment in regional industries that are currently expanding or have the potential to do so in the future.

The aviation building stands on a new 100-acre campus, allowing plenty of room for future growth. Two employers are within sight of the facility, and Parker says that five different aviation manufacturers have taken a look at the facility in the past three years. “They want to know how many people we can train.”

FAA requirements and curriculum drive the programs in airplane mechanics and maintenance. “You can’t just go out there and start training. You have to have your facilities approved,” Parker says.

Students who pass their exams will be qualified for jobs anywhere in the world. Not surprisingly, student enrollment in the aviation program has nearly doubled to about 200 this year.

The planned transportation and welding facility will house the traditional automotive programs as well as a diesel mechanic program for tractor-trailer trucks. The current buildings were constructed in the mid-1980s to accommodate a single instructor. Now that the courses have multiple instructors and are in great demand, they need a better space. GTCC purchased a 250,000-square-foot former bus warehouse near its Jamestown campus, and Parker hopes construction will be finished in 2016.

“You can’t put the college on hold because you’re in declining enrollment. You’ve got to continue,” Parker says. “Where are you going to be in five years? What do you need to have in place?”

Has your community college invested in new programs or facilities despite declining enrollment? Tell us in the Comments.

Rebecca L. Weber

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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