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HCC President Ken Atwater says enrollment is 'trending up' after a steep pandemic decline

A bald man stands at a podium smiling. Behind him, there is a clock on the wall.
Hillsborough Community College
Hillsborough Community College President Ken Atwater said he expects enrollment to rise over the next three years.

While community college enrollment nationwide was down 16% over the last two years, St. Petersburg College enrollment fell 15% and Hillsborough Community College dropped 10%.

Community colleges around the country have been struggling to retain students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Public two-year college enrollment dropped 16% over the last two years, higher than any other higher education institutions. St. Pete College enrollment fell 15% and Hillsborough Community College dropped by 10%, according to a report from the National Student Clearinghouse.

For local schools, like Hillsborough Community College, the numbers aren't that different — but they're starting to see some positive trends.

HCC President Ken Atwater spoke with WUSF's Jack Prator about how his college is attempting to bounce back.

Atwater: We were just impacted by COVID tremendously, and there's nothing unique to Florida or nothing unique to Hillsborough, or HCC. It's something that went across the country. On an average, if you look across the country, community colleges lost enrollment between 10 and 15%.

At the height of the pandemic, we were down about 13% in our enrollment. And we've since then been coming back gradually. And right now, we're still running behind our pre-pandemic enrollment numbers. As I said, at the height, we were 13% down — that was the first year. The next year out, we were down about 10 or 8%. And this year, we want to probably be down about another 5%. So we're trending in the right direction.

What are you doing to retain the students that you have?

Oh, I would just say it's nothing special. We normally do this as a way that we — I mean it's part of our DNA. We've just stepped up our efforts, we're doing a lot more outreach.

We're doing a lot more targeting, a lot more follow-up with students. But you hear from us. If you say that you were contacted by us about five times before the pandemic, now you're probably hearing from us about 10 times. So it's the outreach and the efforts we're doing.

Are there any other college administrations that you've talked to who are worried? Or is the worry starting to go away?

No, no, no, everybody — we're all concerned about it. I mean, there are 28 two-year colleges in Florida. Routinely, we meet together, and enrollment and growth and how we're doing is something that is constantly on all our agenda. I mean, it's a constant dialogue on what we're doing to try to reverse that trend.

And the reason, the only reason why we're trying to reverse the trends, is because we know by coming to us, and getting certification or training, you can get a job. And if you get a job, guess what happens? The economy improves. The economy improves, we all improve. So it's a better quality of life all the way around.

One of the things I am proud of is that our completion rate has gone up, believe it or not, from the pandemic. We had the highest completion rate in the history of the college this past term. And truly that's the effort that we put in to ensure that people are completing and getting degrees and getting certificates here.

Why should someone coming out of high school or someone looking at going back to school, take the (community college route)?

I think there are two great reasons why you pick at community college besides cost. One, I think you can't get a better learning environment. I mean, we're not about research. We're all about teaching and learning. And I think the environment here for a person to learn and be successful is greater here than anyplace else.

Two, the next thing is accessible. We're accessible through different times, we offer day, evening, weekend, we have multiple locations, and so forth. That flexibility lends itself to be more accessible to more people.

What are your future plans to get students back?

I will tell you, we're working on a three-year plan. If you want to think about it as trying to get back to (pre)-pandemic numbers. And every year as I said, we're trending in the right direction. But we anticipate in three years, we'll get back. At the height of the pandemic, we had about 47 or 48,000 students. And right now. we're about 42 or 43,000 students.

Biden administration plans to make college tuition free fell through earlier this year. How do you think that free college tuition would affect enrollment here?

Quite naturally, if you know that if something is going to be free, you can expect a spike. But a major spike? I really don't think our affordability is a deterrent for a majority of people. For some people, it is.

I will tell you that anytime that you can increase access to higher education, I think it's good for the community. The better the education level of your community, the better the economic prosperity of that community.

I'm a little leery about free, though, I have to tell you that — because I always say it costs us to actually run the institution and deliver the instruction. And somebody pays, whether that's paid through tax resources or through private donations, but someone pays.

So it's maybe a little misnomer to say free — say just maybe 'free to our students' — but someone will probably have to pay in order to make that happen, but the idea of increasing access is something we totally support.

A lot of colleges and universities had to make budget cuts during the pandemic. Are you starting to see your budget rise a little bit?

We get our resources from two primary sources here at the college: from the state — the state allocation to us has gone up, (and is) continuing to go up — and from revenue. And with enrollment decline, we lose revenue with enrollment decline.

Our enrollment is still declining, but the state revenue is still going up. So there's a balance of it. But by far, we're faced with the same challenges that you or any business would face, with the cost of inflation and everything else to doing business.

So there's always a challenge. There's a challenge that we're able to manage, and I am extremely proud of the team here who actually have to make the decision, because one of the things that we pride ourselves on is making sure that we maintain our quality standards. And we do that and teaching and learning is our primary objectives.

I think we do a great job on using the resources that we have. I think we maximize those.

Jack Prator is the WUSF Rush Family Radio News intern for summer of 2022.