Enrollment at Casper College has been falling since it hit its 21st-century peak in 2009, though officials said that the decline is in line with national trends and wasn’t causing alarm bells to ring out across campus.
In the fall of 2009, in the midst of the financial crisis, Casper College’s enrollment hit a recent peak of 4,657 students taking credited classes. In the years after, its fall numbers have declined by more than 800 students, resting at a little more than 3,800. The school retained about 60 percent of its students from fall 2015 to fall 2016, officials said, which is slightly below the state average of 61 percent.
It’s also below the national average of 68 percent.
“We definitely want to be better,” said college spokesman Chris Lorenzen.
Decreasing enrollment is not only affecting Casper College. University of Wyoming President Laurie Nichols told lawmakers in December that attracting more students to Laramie was her top priority. The university’s enrollment had been flat for several years, she said, but this year’s freshman class is smaller than last year’s by more than 200 students. UW plans to increase its tuition by 4 percent.
In February, the Wyoming Community College Commission announced that it would be increasing all community college per-credit hour tuition by $5, to $94. It also, in the future, will remove a cap on the number of credit hours that can be billed to a student. Casper College had already been planning on increasing its fees.
Lorenzen said he wasn’t sure how the fee and tuition increases will affect the college’s efforts to boost enrollment, though he noted that community college here is still cheaper than in neighboring states.
Though the decline seems significant, administration officials said it was indicative of the cyclical nature of college enrollment.
“Our decline has stopped, we’re kind of flat right now,” said Lynn Fletcher, the director of institutional research at Casper College. “The last time I looked at our spring numbers, they’re practically the same (compared with last spring) ... they’re within five people.”
Why enrollment rises and drops when it does is difficult to pinpoint, said Kyla Foltz, the director of admissions at the college. One popular belief at Casper College and in higher education generally is that when the economy is doing poorly, enrollment tends to increase. Perhaps without a job or savings, people may return to college to begin a new career or refresh themselves to rejoin an old one.
Those numbers seem to have played out in Casper recently. School years 2009-10 and 2010-11 had the highest enrollment totals of the century so far, numbers that have slowly dropped back to levels not seen since 2001-2002.
What is less clear is why Casper College hasn’t seen a resurgence in the wake of the recent energy bust. Foltz said that might be because the people who lost jobs in the mineral industry in Wyoming chose to pursue extraction employment out of state rather than find new jobs in Wyoming. They may not have been native Wyomingites to begin with, she said, and thus were more willing to move to find new work.
“Traditionally, that cycle of enrollment, if you go back to our very beginning, it goes up and it goes down,” Fletcher said. “We can’t tell you all the time why that happens.”
The economy acts as a relatively reliable indicator, she said. Others, like fluctuating birth rates and high school class sizes, are even less predictable.
Though Fletcher said she sees enrollment drops as an industry reality rather than a worrying trend, Lorenzen said the college still wants to work to keep students in seats, for obvious reasons.
“If we could identify that cause-and-effect relationship more solidly, it might make it a little easier,” he said. “But I don’t think we’re slowing down at all.”
He and Fletcher said the college is working on a strategic enrollment plan that focuses on everything from recruiting students to the application process. Officials have been studying the problem since August. Part of that is identifying indicators for students at a higher risk of dropping out. Those flags include low attendance and poor performance, for instance.
The enrollment plan will include examining what programs attract students — and which ones don’t, Foltz said. That’s the broader lens through which she thinks the situation should be examined.
The college is rolling out an ad blitz as well.
“Right now we’re doing an internal campaign to raise awareness to advising and registration periods,” Lorenzen said, in an effort to boost retention rates for next fall.
He added that the college doesn’t have set goals yet for enrollment or retention figures but is in the process of creating those benchmarks.
Officials stressed again that this is the nature of higher education enrollment: It goes through high and low periods.
“The sky isn’t falling,” Foltz said.