SWIC defies enrollment trends

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With enrollment plummeting among many sectors of higher education, Southwestern Illinois College is actually seeing a positive trend. 

According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, the COVID pandemic caused undergraduate enrollment to fall among all institution types, with spring 2021 seeing the sharpest undergraduate enrollment decline on record so far. 

The report noted figures were down 5.9 percent compared to spring 2020 numbers. 

Of this, traditional college-aged students, most notably those ages 18-20, saw the largest decline compared to their older counterparts. 

Community colleges and private, for-profit institutions saw the most students withdrawing or taking leaves of absence, according to National Student Clearinghouse Data and a National Center for Education Statistics Report. 

Yet, Robert Tebbe, SWIC’s executive director of enrollment development and institutional planning, reported institutional fall 2021 data is showing a welcome derivation from those national trends. 

When comparing fall 2020 figures to those of this semester, SWIC has seen a 13-14 percent increase in number of students enrolled and a 6 percent increase in credit hours, Tebbe said. 

“We are aware that enrollment is declining nationally and we have actually seen a different trend institutionally,” he said, adding he is “very proud and excited” about the recent figures. 

Tebbe attributes this to a variety of different factors, from a smooth in-person to online learning transition to continuing to make programming changes. 

“We’ve implemented an LPN program at our Granite City and East St. Louis campuses, and we’re actually preparing an implementation of that at our Red Bud campus,” Tebbe said. “We’ve developed a fermentation and cannabis program for classes across our district.” 

He also cited SWIC’s “pathway models” as part of the success. He noted SWIC-Red Bud was seeing enrollment decreases up until this model was introduced. 

“We communicated with all the students in the southern part of our district and all of the district high schools … the importance of having the ability for a student to obtain a degree specifically at that campus,” Tebbe explained this model. “We’ve improved our scheduling model at the Red Bud campus to where in the fall of 2019, not only were we seeing enrollment stabilization, but we were seeing an enrollment increase.” 

He explained a large part of this was strategically planning which classes to offer. 

“We were offering classes that the students in the southern part wanted to take the right English, the right psychology, the right sociology, as opposed to just offering a wide array of classes in hopes that they would take them,” Tebbe said, also noting SWIC designed programs so students could enter the workforce right after graduating instead of having to enroll at another university for continued education to do so. 

He said this year’s enrollment for SWIC-Red Bud compared to last year’s is pretty much the same, yet he hopes that by continuing to develop programs and strategies, Red Bud will be on par with the larger institutional enrollment increase.

The parking lots at all SWIC campuses are full, Tebbe said, stating class formats are transitioning back to normal. 

“We’re seeing a 14 percent decrease in online enrollment from fall 2020 to fall 2021, which kind of gives you an example of students coming back to campus,” Tebbe said. 

Not only is SWIC faring well in the pandemic, they also had just reached enrollment stabilization before the pandemic after a long period of decline. 

Tebbe said the period of decline was seen in all community colleges in the state, but SWIC had specific obstacles to boosting enrollment. 

“I think that there was obviously no increase or no program development going on at that time (at SWIC). The economy was in a positive direction and obviously when you have a positive economy, the enrollments decrease. So I think it was a variety of different things,” Tebbe said. “I think it was the economy, I think it was being stagnant from a program standpoint, not providing what the community needed, and then we addressed that prior to the pandemic.” 

While SWIC is proud of its enrollment increase, Tebbe said they realize there is still more room for improvement. Currently, about one-third of SWIC’s student body is non-traditional age. 

Tebbe estimated of every five students who graduate from a local high school, one ends up attending SWIC-Red Bud. 

He hopes to draw more students to SWIC directly after high school. 

“We do that with the strong relationships we have with our counselors and we promote how affordable it is to come to this institution. When you leave this institution, you’re obviously going to leave with a significantly less amount of debt than you would at a four-year school,” Tebbe said. “Those are things we’re trying to communicate to the high school counselors, to the students, to the parents that we hope will allow them to come to this institution.” 

Monroe County residents are in Community College District No. 522, a taxing district that helps fund SWIC operations.

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