GRCC students walking around the Olivarez Student Plaza in between classes (Lucas Southwell/The Collegiate).

Enrollment has been declining at Grand Rapids Community College from around 17,000 students in 2013 to 11,089 in this Winter semester, according to Institutional Research. That’s nearly a 6,000 student deficit, around a 35% decrease.

GRCC’s Dean of Student Success and Retention, Eric Mullen, explained that there are multiple factors at play for the especially low enrollment, one of which being low unemployment. 

“When unemployment is low, people are working, we’re low too. When unemployment goes up, people are not working. They’re looking to get retrained, new job opportunities so enrollment goes up,” Mullen said. “Usually when the unemployment is high or the economics are not favorable, you’ll see state and federal agencies come to the table with new dollars, grant programs, to try and improve people getting back into the workforce.”

Mullen also mentioned that as the attitudes around going to college shift, the numbers have followed suit.

 “It wasn’t until recently that we heard things like gap years,” he said. “Some of the things we’ve heard from younger generations is, ‘Yeah, pay is important. I also want to have control of my time. I don’t want to be completely married to a job and looking for career advancement.’”

Mullen also attributes declining birth rates to some of the decline in enrollment. According to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Michigan’s birth rate has dropped by nearly 12% since the year 2000.

“We’re seeing a decrease in the number of births,” he said. “So we’re just seeing our main pipeline of students coming through the K-12 system decline.”

He mentioned that the pandemic has also been a factor in people’s decisions to leave higher education. 

“We’re talking about people evaluating their return on investment to go to higher education probably got skewed because of the pandemic. A lot of people stepped out. A lot of people didn’t go for the first time.”

Mullen explained that the solution to this problem is harder to come by for a community college than the four-year public institutions. 

“What they do a lot of the time when they’re hurting [is] they lower their GPA requirements a little bit, their test scores a little bit, so they’re also fighting for students which makes it a more competitive marketplace,” he said.

Mullen explained that GRCC’s approach to enrollment will focus more on retention. “Yeah you can go find more students but what about keeping the ones that are here,” he said.

He said that GRCC will be focusing on retention through a myriad of community oriented initiatives. “We’ve done some recent research (into) how widespread the instances are of students who are dealing with food insecurities, housing insecurities, mental health issues, not having access to things that they need like technology to participate,” he said. “But we have to figure out how to do that better. We have to figure out better how to keep our students here, keep them progressing.” 

Mullen said that his division is working on the GRCC Cares Network which would help connect students who are struggling with help outside of the classroom. “Anybody can say, ‘Hey, I talked with a student or they shared something with me, I think they could use some additional support,’” Mullen said, adding that those reports would go into a system and students would be paired with support for their needs. 

He’s hoping that by offering support to struggling students, GRCC could increase its retention rate which was last measured at 57% from Fall 2020 to Fall 2021.

Mullen also mentioned the GRCC Reconnect program as an avenue to higher enrollment. 

Reconnect is a Last Dollar scholarship for students who are currently 25 and older who don’t have an associate’s degree. So they have to fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) to see if they have any federal aid available to them but if they still have costs for both tuition and fees after that, the state program Reconnect kicks in,” he said. 

Michigan’s Reconnect program has had around 99,000 applicants statewide since August with only around 6,000 of those coming from Kent county. There’s no available data for how many of those applicants have been accepted, much less gone to GRCC.

“I think actually our decline might have been even steeper but that money came through (so) we did see a nice little bump in that population although we’ve kind of plateaued there.”

Despite this, Mullen urged students not to worry about lower enrollment’s effect on campus. 

“Tuition is not our only revenue source. We do get allocation from the state, we also get allocation from the region through tax capture, the millage,” he said. “We want to keep our eye on (enrollment) but we’re not in any kind of panic stage.”

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