JWCC officials plan new initiatives to reverse recent enrollment trend

Alexis Wood, right, of John Wood Community College’s admissions office, advises student ambassador Stephanie Dearwester on some points to highlight when giving students and visitors tours of the campus. (H-W Photo/Michael Kipley)
Posted: Dec. 9, 2013 8:54 am Updated: Dec. 23, 2013 11:30 am

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

If the year 2010 were ever to be set to music at John Wood Community College, there's a good chance the jukebox selection would be Bruce Springsteen's "Glory Days."

Enrollment was at an all-time high, and the campus at 48th and Harrison was definitely boffo box office.

The enrollment numbers since have gradually declined -- from 2,757 to 1,923 -- and the school is in the early stages of a strategic plan to recapture the rapture.

"Enrollment affects the budget more than anything else, and it's a high priority," said Mike Elbe, vice president of student services at JWCC. "Enrollment represents about 55 percent of the school's revenue."

There is some interesting irony connected with the drop in enrollment. The more the economy has improved in recent years, the more JWCC's enrollment figures have slipped.

The height of the recent Great Recession also saw the height of JWCC enrollment. Government stimulus money was attractive for unemployed adults to return to school, either to strengthen their resumes or undertake a career makeover. As many of those adults gradually found their niche in the new work force -- and the stimulus dollars dried up -- the number of older enrollees continued to dwindle.

The ongoing nationwide decline in the rural population base also has had an effect on John Wood's student body. There are now fewer high school graduates in predominantly rural areas, which translates into fewer high school graduates going to college. There has been a 9.3 percent drop in high school graduates over the past decade among the West-Central Illinois high schools that are the principal targets of JWCC recruiters.

Rachel Buhr, the director of admissions at John Wood, says the college's strategic plan to improve enrollment numbers will focus on a multipronged attack that will emphasize one particular element. She says the perception of JWCC needs to change in the eyes of many potential students -- and their families.

"We need to get on the radar system with students much earlier," she said. "We want students to be thinking about John Wood at the front end of the selection process, rather than (John Wood) being a consolation prize. We are now concentrating on building relationships with counselors and students within the district.

"It is ‘relational recruitment,' and it was not a high priority in the past. We want students to know we are a viable option at the beginning of the selection process.

"It's a mindset shift," Buhr said. "We can't sit back and wait for them to show up at the door."

The strategic plan also includes:

º Expanding the college's principal market area, with a particular aim of enticing more students from Northeast Missouri. Only about 15 percent of the high school graduates in the nine-county Northeast Missouri region attend John Wood, compared with about 26 percent from the four counties in West-Central Illinois. Those percentages have been virtually unchanged for a decade.

An aggressive marketing campaign is planned in Northeast Missouri, plus tuition breaks for out-of-state for Missourians who work in Illinois.

Career and technical education will be a major part of the emphasis when it comes to Missouri students, Buhr said. JWCC research has indicated those areas are the most popular among the majority of prospective students in that region.

"We have to make sure we are meeting the need of those students in (our area)," said Melanie Lechtenberg, the JWCC dean of enrollment services and director of financial aid. "What we provide here is important for many students."

º Restrengthening the adult student numbers, with an emphasis on career makeover and/or accenting JWCC tie-ins with local industries. The college has working agreements with numerous area manufacturing facilities.

Careers in such manufacturing fields as welding, electronics, construction and culinary arts will receive added emphasis, and so will other short-term training that is available. Not all programs at the college are two-year plans, Buhr emphasized.

º Continuing to boost online enrollment, which is a popular option for many of the employed adult students who may be unable to attend on-campus classes during the day. School officials are planning to increase JWCC's online course capacity.

"Everything will be evaluated in an effort to increase enrollment," Elbe said.

The John Wood district encompasses all or parts of Adams, Pike, Hancock, Calhoun, Schuyler, Brown, Morgan, Scott and Cass counties. There are 16 high schools within those nine counties, plus another 12 in Northeast Missouri that are on the college's target list.

Another problem JWCC is now facing is "attacks" on its student recruiting base from schools outside the immediate area. It's a given that John Wood, Quincy University and Culver-Stockton College all recruit the same high school population, but in recent years additional schools across the region have become more aggressive in West-Central Illinois and Northeast Missouri.

"More regional schools are after our students," Elbe said. "Schools like Illinois-Springfield, UMSL (Missouri-St. Louis) and Columbia (Mo.) College are expanding their recruiting bases."

Elbe said John Wood traditionally does not cross Illinois community college boundaries -- unless requested by a specific high school. There is a gentleman's agreement to stay within territorial boundaries.

An exception to that unwritten rule has been John Wood representatives recruiting students at Hancock County schools such as Carthage and Hamilton.

"Schools like that are right on the border between our district and Carl Sandburg (College), and we were asked by those schools to come in," Elbe said. "We are cautious about crossing district lines unless asked to do so."

John Wood officials are confident the enrollment figures will soon start to trend upward.

"I think we'll see the first telling sign of these new initiatives in the enrollment figures for the fall of 2014," Buhr said. "I think that's when the numbers will start to go up again."


These are the John Wood Community College enrollments for the following fiscal years:

2010: 2,757 (all-time high)

2011: 2,501

2012: 2,390

2013: 2,103

2014: 1,923


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