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Higher education enrollment up in Colorado Springs area despite strong economy

September 12, 2017 Updated: September 13, 2017 at 6:25 am
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FILE - Students walk on the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs campus Thursday, Aug. 28, 2014 during their first week of the fall semester. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

Fall enrollment at Colorado Springs-area colleges and universities is up, bucking a trend that sees fewer students seeking higher education during robust economic times.

"If you look at trends nationally, when there's a recession, when jobs are soft, people go back to school," said Mark J. Hatch, vice president of enrollment management at Colorado College, a private liberal arts school.

But for the 11th consecutive year, the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs has set an enrollment record, according to figures released Tuesday.

This semester's 12,422 students represent a 3.6 percent increase over last year's record enrollment. That means 427 more students than in the fall of 2016, said UCCS spokesman Tom Hutton.

"We are committed to helping every student on our campus succeed," Chancellor Venkat Reddy said. "Graduation is the ultimate measure of that, but student success for us means so much more - providing job opportunities on campus and off campus, scholarships, internships, connections to the community, research opportunities, and the knowledge and skills for success in life."

The head count at Pikes Peak Community College has grown by just over 1,000 students to 14,089, said spokesman Warren Epstein.

The enrollment reports come as officials from the Colorado Department of Higher Education and Gov. John Hickenlooper rolled out on Tuesday a statewide call to move higher education forward.

An updated master plan, "Colorado Rises: Advancing Education and Talent Development," reaffirms a previous goal of having 66 percent of the state's adults hold some college credential by 2025.

Other statewide strategic goals include stepping up efforts to prepare students for college after high school and have them complete college in a timely manner, making college more affordable for all students, and narrowing the equity gap by serving more Hispanic and Latino students - who despite being Colorado's largest and fastest-growing ethnic segment have the lowest average educational attainment and the lowest college enrollment rate of any ethnic group in the state.

Each year since 2007, enrollment at UCCS, the fastest-growing campus in the University of Colorado system, has surpassed the previous year's numbers.

Over the past decade, enrollment has grown by more than 60 percent; in 2007, the school had 7,715 students.

Enrollment at community colleges generally runs counter to the economy, but PPCC isn't experiencing that this year, Epstein said.

"When the economy is weak, workers go for more skills and education, and enrollment grows," he said. "What's amazing about our current trend is that it breaks the usual pattern. With the local economy going strong, we have seen a drop-off in our non-traditional older students, who no doubt are going to work in greater numbers. But that has been offset by a tremendous growth in new traditional students."

Epstein cites several reasons, including increased costs for four-year colleges "making the relative value of community college more dramatic."

Internal improvements, such as more and better recruiters and a digital campaign to reach students, also have helped boost enrollment, he said.

Applications to PPCC were up 6 percent for this academic year as well, Epstein added.

Colorado College for decades has maintained a consistent enrollment at its capacity of about 2,000 students, Hatch said.

But the number of applicants has been rising over the past 15 years, he said. This year's 8,200 applicants marked a record, and the 15 percent admittance rate was the lowest percentage in the college's 143-year history.

"We've worked very hard to tell our story as a unique place with a unique curriculum, so I can't point to any one thing because our trend in applicants is consistently good, with small dips in 2009 during the recession," Hatch said.

Student diversity has increased from 11 percent of students self-identifying as domestic students of color in 2000 to more than 25 percent today, he added. Half of all students receive some type of financial aid, Hatch said.

Fall enrollment figures released Tuesday for Colorado State University-Pueblo show an increase in online students, greater diversity and higher index scores, but a decline overall of 4.5 percent.

The head count is 4,053 students, said spokeswoman Cora Zaletel, with 1,694 students hailing from Pueblo County and 638 from El Paso County. The school operates satellite campuses in Colorado Springs and at Fort Carson.

Administrators had projected a decline based on national trends for regional comprehensive universities as well as demographics and enrollment trends with feeder high schools and community colleges, according to CSU-Pueblo President Timothy Mottet.

The student population remains one of the most diverse in Colorado at 46 percent minority and 32 percent Hispanic, he said.

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