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It’s not uncommon in my frequent interactions with members of our Sterling community to hear concerns about declining enrollment at Northeastern Junior College. Believe me, I appreciate and share these concerns at as deep a level as anyone in our community.

I’d like to share some facts about what is going on nationally as well as locally to shed some light on why our college’s enrollments have declined as they have. There’s a lot to unpack to fully appreciate what’s going on here, so let’s start with what’s going on nationally.

College enrollment nationally has decreased for eight years in a row, according to a report published last May by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center in Herndon, Virginia. Higher education at the national level experienced 1.8 and 1.7 percent decreases year-over-year in the past two years. Community colleges, as a subset, lost 3.4 percent year over year last year. Northeastern is obviously not immune to this slide.

Across the country the cost of a college education has risen dramatically and only continues to rise. This is true for two-year schools as well as four-year colleges and universities. It is true for both private and public institutions. Rising tuition along with the costs of books and learning materials are piling ever-higher atop increasing living expenses (on- and off-campus). Today’s aspiring college students confront the scary reality of paying major sums of money to complete a degree, and many must decide if going into debt for several years after graduation is worth it. The fact is, fewer students can afford the rising costs of college.

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A third but important dynamic to keep in mind is that, ironically, recessions are “good” for colleges and healthy economies are “bad.” In hard economic times, people historically tend to invest in education to improve their ability to secure jobs where there is opportunity. The steady economic expansion — and today’s low unemployment numbers — suggests that college is not as critical for personal economic security and career success.

That sets the stage for what’s happening at the local level. Northeastern experienced a 21 percent decline in enrollment over the ten-year period between 2008 and 2018. In 2010, Northeastern’s full-time enrollment (FTE) number was 1,531 students. In the 2017-18 academic year, that number was 1,206. While that might look excessive compared to the national numbers, consider the following dynamics that are unique to Northeastern’s geographic location.

First, enrollment at high schools across our rural, five-county service area (which we historically depended upon as feeder schools) is trending down at an alarming rate. Fewer local high school graduates means fewer prospective college students. Sterling High School, as an example, graduated 648 students in 2010. In 2017 that number was 517 — a 20 percent decrease.

So what are we doing to combat declining enrollment at Northeastern? For starters, we’ve frozen what had been a years-long escalation of tuition, which had been increasing from 3-7 percent per year until 2018. Students paid no more this year than they did last year. We’ve begun to remake our image both physically (as in campus renovations and upkeep) as well as virtually (online, as with our newly redesigned website). The new website, combined with application of best practices in digital marketing (e.g., website design, search engine optimization, digital content development, and social media) is raising our profile nationally and even internationally. We’re adopting strategies to go beyond dependence upon our service area for prospective students, and actively pursuing aspiring high school and older, “non-traditional” students whose interests align with any of our 80-plus programs. We still effectively differentiate as a residential college, offering students a value option to get a four-year campus experience replete with competitive athletic programs, but we’re emphasizing the programs we can differentiate and excel with, such as our top-ten wind technology program, precision agriculture, and our nascent hemp production program.

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We have reasons to be optimistic in spite of the national trends in higher education, never mind our recent track of declining student enrollment. I’m excited to be addressing our challenges, and invite all communities to stay tuned with our progress in the coming enrollment season.

Jay Lee is the president at Northeastern Junior College.

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