A little more than 3,000 students call Fort Lewis College home – the lowest enrollment the institution has seen in more than a decade.
Declining enrollment at FLC has been a cause for concern over the past several years. Fall enrollment is 3,356, down 6.6 percent compared with last year, or 239 fewer students.
“The enrollment decline is very concerning to us,” said FLC spokesman Mitch Davis. “It is one of our top priorities right now. ”
FLC’s steadily-declining enrollment numbers are on par with trends across the nation.
A report conducted by National Student Clearinghouse, a nonprofit organization that provides educational reporting, data exchange and research services, found that undergraduate enrollment for spring 2017 was down by about 300,000 students nationwide compared with the previous year.
Data show 111,000 fewer students (10.1 percent) enrolled in four-year, for-profit institutions, and 138,000 fewer students (2.5 percent) enrolled in two-year public colleges. Nationally, 7,300 fewer students (0.2 percent) enrolled in four-year private, nonprofit institutions, with smaller institutions (those enrolling less than 10,000 students) falling by 19,300.
National Student Clearinghouse found enrollment declines in 39 states, including Colorado.
More than 290,000 students attended a higher institution in Colorado in spring 2017, a 2.1 percent decline from the previous year.
Jason DeWitt, research manager with National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, said postsecondary enrollments in Colorado decreased 8.7 percent from fall 2011 to fall 2016 – a trend similar to other states across the country.
“Nationally, college enrollments declined 7.5 percent over the same time period, so enrollments in Colorado declined at just a slightly faster pace than they did nationally,” he said.
Dewitt said it is not uncommon for college enrollment numbers to increase during recessions and decrease as the unemployment rate shrinks.
“Enrollments peaked during the fall 2011 term as a result of the Great Recession,” he said. “Since then, enrollments have been in steady decline, particularly in the for-profit and community college sectors, and especially among part-time and older students.”
Fewer students means FLC could take a financial hit, but Davis said the budget committee anticipated the enrollment decline and planned accordingly.
“Traditionally, FLC has budgeted its resources very conservatively,” he said. “Our history of enrollment has peaks and valleys. The last few years, we have been able to absorb those decreases in tuition revenue.”
He said there is no immediate plan for personnel cuts despite the financial burden of fewer students.
“The economic downturn in 2008 was the last time we had personnel cuts,” Davis said. “It would take a significant enrollment decrease for us to make cuts. If we are not able to turn around the enrollment trend within the next few years, it will become a much more difficult situation for us.”
The school’s state funding is tied to its ability to retain and graduate students, and despite steady enrollment decline, FLC has seen a significant rise in graduation rates.
The rate of students scheduled to graduate in four years improved by 19 percent in 2016-17 over 2015-16.
For that reason, Davis said FLC’s state funding, so far, has not been affected by the enrollment decline.
FLC’s enrollment issue is “complicated,” and it is hard to pinpoint the exact cause for the decline, Davis said.
Rural schools have difficulty recruiting and retaining students because many choose to attend larger institutions in more metropolitan areas, he said.
“We see a lot of the students who apply here end up going to schools like Colorado State University and University of Colorado-Boulder,” Davis said. “I think we fall into the trend of seeing students leave for bigger schools.”
Durango’s location is a double-edge sword for recruitment. While some students are attracted to the town’s endless opportunities for recreation, others find the isolation unbearable.
“Many high school students prefer to stay closer to home, and so when you talk about more rural institutions, that presents a challenge because there aren’t as many students in La Plata County as there are in Denver,” Davis said.
“Our location is absolutely a selling point for some, but when you compare it to other places, it is isolated here.”
Davis said the recruiting landscape has changed in recent years. Competition to recruit students is fierce across the West, and students are applying to more colleges and universities than in the past.
“We’ve seen the number of schools students apply to rise,” he said. “We have seen students who apply to FLC apply to 10 other schools, too.”
Changing admission requirements also contribute to the decline, Davis said. Four-year colleges in Colorado are raising their admission standards, which will take effect in 2019. The standards are a combination of test scores and GPA.
FLC is gradually phasing in the new standards, and the number of applicants not admitted has increased steadily in recent years. In 2016, 614 applicants were denied admission. This year, it was 752.
Davis said the college is considering several ways to stem the enrollment decline, including renaming the institution.
“FLC’s identity is something that we are investigating right now,” he said. “We are a long way away from making any kind of decision, but we are preparing to reach out to our community, alumni, supporters and students to talk about a name change.”
The school could transition to a university, or undergo a complete name change depending on feedback.
“Informal discussions have shown people are passionate on either side,” Davis said. “We don’t have a sense yet of which direction our stakeholders will lead us in that discussion.”
Davis said some students are confused when they hear the word “college,” and depending on where they live, it can have different meanings.
“On the East Coast, there is that perspective of private, elite, prestigious and expensive,” he said. “If you’re from California, college means community college. At FLC, we’ve seen that from students. They don’t realize we are a four-year school.”
In an effort to identify opportunities to build, enhance and market FLC’s programs – with an emphasis on STEM fields – the college organized the Summit Project during the summer of 2017. The results were a culmination of the efforts put forth by students, faculty and staff.
“A major goal of the project was to increase enrollment,” Davis said. “We had to ask, ‘How do we market ourselves?’”
A portion of the Summit Project includes a feasibility study on potential new academic programs at the college.
“The new programs run the gambit, from micro-credentials, or less than a minor, such as ski operations, to new bachelor’s and master’s degrees,” Davis said. “We are looking at cost benefit analysis for these programs, and what we need in terms of facilities and professors.”
Davis said there is a long list of new programs being considered, but it is uncertain how many will come to fruition.
He stressed that the college’s emphasis on STEM fields does not mean it will do away with liberal arts.
“There is a market demand for STEM majors, and here we feel like we have such strong STEM programs that we are in a good position to respond to that need,”he said. “But liberal arts will remain a central tenet to FLC’s education. We see liberal arts as a competitive advantage in the marketplace that make students more versatile to employers.”
Multiple phone calls to Associate Director of Admission Katie Nester requesting comment were not returned. President Thomas did not respond to a request for comment because she was abroad.