Oct 31 2006

Community Colleges Ramp Up

Enrollments at community colleges have reached record highs, but many schools are managing better than ever before, thanks to new technology tools.

Since school started in August, every classroom at Dutchess Community College has been occupied during every available hour of every weekday. Enrollment at the Poughkeepsie, N.Y., college has increased 20 percent over the last five years.

That makes it especially tough for Registrar Deborah Weibman to help full-time students find classes that fit into their tight schedules. If she could pull available classes by days or times, it would help, but the campus’s legacy administrative system, which handles registration, can’t search that way.

“We’re dancing on the top of a pin,” Weibman says. “We’re maxed out on facilities.”

She has hope, though. After winning a five-year $1.8 million annual grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the campus is replacing its legacy administrative workhorse with a state-of-the-art system that offers expanded search capabilities and features such as Web-based registration. (See “21st Century Registrar ” on page 66.)

The new system, which is being rolled out at campuses through the State University of New York network, will be the latest in a steady stream of new technological advances that have helped community colleges like Dutchess stay on top of the record enrollments across the country. Throughout the 1990s, U.S. undergraduate enrollments rose by 9 percent overall, while that figure climbed as high as 14 percent at community colleges, according to a report last year by the American Council on Education’s Center for Policy Analysis.

“Enrollment is going up at all community colleges—some more than others,” says Dutchess spokesperson Ann Winfield. “Community colleges have always suffered from the reputation of being second best, but now they’re becoming the college of choice.”

Schools of Choice

The reasons behind the increasing enrollments vary, but there are several common factors, Winfield explains. As tuitions rise at U.S. colleges and universities—with some schools’ four-year price tags in the six figures—many students opt to spend their first two years at more affordable community colleges and then transfer to four-year schools to complete their bachelor’s degree. (Two years at Dutchess costs New York State residents $5,200.) “It saves a family an awful lot of money,” Winfield says.

Another reason is that numerous community colleges closely analyze enrollment figures on a regular basis to improve scheduling and course offerings. For instance, to accommodate the growing Hispanic community in the Poughkeepsie area, Dutchess added an American Sign Language course in Spanish, which has been extremely successful.

In addition, distance learning programs are helping many schools attract students from outside their region. For example, Surry Community College attracts students both from its home base of Dobson, N.C., and from around the world, says Chief Technology Officer Nate Nixon.

Surry offers the only two-year viticulture and enology (the growing of grapes and the production of wine) program on the East Coast and is one of the few in the country. After Surry began offering distance learning classes on the Web two years ago, students from as far away as New Zealand started to enroll in the popular program.

Online courses also attract students who wouldn’t otherwise be able to enroll in classes, such as parents who need to stay home with young children, Nixon adds. “Distance learning changes a lot of things,” he says. “It changes what you have to do in terms of technology support. We must have systems that are up and running 24 x 7 x 365.”

A Century of Change

In 1901, the nation’s first public community college opened its doors in Joliet, Ill. More than a century later, Joliet Junior College is still serving as a pioneer.

“We’ve been ahead of the game as far as getting people registered online,” says Jennifer Kloberdanz, dean of admissions and financial aid. The school started offering Web-based registration five years ago, long before many of its peers. Automating the application and registration processes, Kloberdanz explains, has helped the school handle its steadily increasing enrollments.

The newest online offering at Joliet is its Web-based entrance application. When students apply online, their information is automatically loaded into Joliet’s administrative system, and acceptance letters are mailed out weekly. That means students get their acceptances sooner and can register for classes more quickly.

Kloberdanz’s department works closely with IT to ensure that staff and students have the support they need to operate the system. While most students are technologically savvy, Joliet has a percentage of students who aren’t as comfortable with computers, she explains. “The key thing is making sure there’s help available for them,” she says.

A New Approach

Students at Surry Community College have been able to apply online for about three years. However, aside from that, the school doesn’t currently offer much in the way of technology administrative tools, Nixon admits.

But along with the rest of the community colleges in the area, Surry is implementing a new college information system that will make the enrollment process significantly faster and more efficient for both students and staff.

The Unix-based legacy system that’s been used until now by North Carolina’s community colleges requires that data be entered from designated networked terminals, and only certain staff members are authorized to access the information. Students can apply online and their applications are automatically loaded into the legacy system, but someone must manually review the data to ensure that all the necessary information has been input before students can be accepted.

The new system will review that information automatically and let students fully enroll online, Nixon explains. Students will also be able to view their grades online. Implementation began in August 2004, and Nixon expects the entire project to take about 18 months.

“I can’t think of a single area of student data that isn’t covered by this system,” he says.

Another college that’s working to improve the enrollment process is Valencia Community College in Orlando, Fla. It’s working on a nationwide project with a handful of other community colleges and SAS Institute to develop state-of-the-art business intelligence tools for campuses, according to Valencia CIO Bill White.

The software will sit on top of existing systems, such as enrollment and payroll, and will analyze data to improve planning and reporting. White explains that these tools can help colleges determine what programs to offer; evaluate how successful those programs are and how well students are doing in them; and determine what the college can do to boost student achievement. Some schools have already begun installing the systems, but Valencia plans to begin implementation this fall.

“It will be a big advance for us in terms of knowledge management,” White says. “I think it will help us with a lot of business operations and decisions at the college.”

Tech Tools Speed the Process

When most people recall their college enrollment experiences of yesteryear, the first thing that often comes to mind is a large room full of long lines. But technology is helping to shorten those lines, while also facilitating the acceptance and enrollment processes for both students and administrators. Following are some of the tools that provide community colleges with the most help:

• Web-based entrance applications are processed automatically, speeding up the acceptance process.

• Online registration lets students search courses by several variables, including class, subject, time and location, and then enroll in courses instantaneously.

• Searchable databases help administrators analyze enrollment figures so they can better plan and home in on areas that need additional recruitment efforts.

• College auditing software helps students determine what courses they need to fulfill their graduation requirements.

• Enterprise-level student information systems let students access their accounts, so they can apply for and manage financial aid, check grades and learn about graduation requirements on their own.


Deborah Weibman has seen a lot of faces pass through the halls of Dutchess Community College in Poughkeepsie, N. Y. She’s also seen a lot of changes. As registrar since 1988, Weibman says the biggest fundamental change has been real-time Web-based registration.

Dutchess started offering online registration two years ago, but it didn’t catch on until the 2004-2005 academic year.

Since registration is open every day of the year, students can actually enroll in classes while they meet with their advisers. The Web-based system will automatically check to see that students have met course prerequisites and have no holds on their accounts due to late tuition, library fines or other factors. It will also ensure that students have no course conflicts in their schedules.

Every day, the computer center at Dutchess downloads live enrollment data, which is compared “point in time” to figures from previous years. A strategic enrollment management committee (the registrar, communications director, deans of administration and academics, director of admissions, director of planning and research, and the president) meets each week to analyze enrollment reports.

“The purpose is to look at the numbers,” explains Dutchess spokesperson Ann Winfield. “We try to see where we’re down.”

That information can help administrators spot unexpected trends. For instance, with the housing market doing so well and jobs in such high demand, one might assume that more students interested in fields such as architecture and construction would go directly into the workforce.

However, enrollments in those programs are up because many students want to earn their degrees and make themselves more marketable for the future.

Melissa Solomon is a New York-based freelance writer.