Portland Community College has seen a sharp drop in enrollment over the past decade, but officials have hope for its future. The college will enhance campus thanks to a historic connection and take a strategic look at enrollment management – all with student needs in mind.
A $450 million PCC bond issue was overwhelmingly approved in the midterm elections, with about 60% voter support. This money will go toward expanding technical classrooms at PCC’s Rock Creek campus in Washington County, as well as major upgrades to facilities at other campuses for things like accessibility, lighting, ventilation, and plumbing.
Borrowing funds will also be used for upgrades to existing classrooms, with an eye on both online and in-person learning.
PCC officials say they are paying close attention to what students want from their college experience, especially as things change after two years of mostly online operations.
“This particular connection has been really impacted by the pandemic over the last few years when we’ve really had to transition to a lot of remote operations,” said Kurt Simonds, interim executive dean of collegiate operations at PCC.
Simonds told OPB that the balance between in-person and online operations is important for the college to move forward, especially with regard to the diverse range of community PCC services. Many of the PCC students are older and have work, family and other priorities outside of school.
Many of these students enjoyed the flexibility that virtual classes offered in the early days of the pandemic, he said. But many of these students still want to get back on campus.
Simonds said the college offers three primary learning modalities: fully online, asynchronous instruction — with no scheduled class times; remote, synchronous classes – classes via Zoom that have scheduled meeting times; and on-campus classes.
Before the pandemic, in the fall of 2019, about 20% of PCC courses were online, according to the college. Last fall, about 80% of classes were online or remote. That number has declined somewhat this fall, with about 48% of classes taking place online or remotely.
Simonds said the college will continue to have a balance of different instructional modalities for students who are progressing. The binding improvements reflect this.
“What we are finding as we return to a new type of post-pandemic normal is that many students want to continue with online and distance learning because of the convenience and access they offer them, but many other students want to really be back on campus,” he said.
Strategic steps for stability
Whether they choose to attend classes in person or online, PCC’s student population has dwindled over the years. Part of planning for the college’s future will also include analyzing this loss and how it might be reversed.
Student enrollment declined about 26% from fall 2019 through this fall, according to data from Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission.
But even before that, PCC saw fewer and fewer students. The college currently has about 42% fewer students than in 2012.
Ryan Clark, dean of enrollment strategy and services at PCC, said the college faces many of the same challenges as other community colleges across the country.
“Our number one competitor that we are losing students to is nowhere. Students are choosing not to enroll, period,” Clark said. “I think that really speaks to this perfect inflation storm, low unemployment, just a really uncertain environment that people are in.”
Even before the pandemic, Clark said some students at community colleges like PCC are facing rising housing costs that are pushing them beyond city limits. Other students are balancing the opportunity cost of attending college with entry-level jobs that offer higher wages and want to avoid college debt.
Still, PCC officials hope that investments in the campus and student needs could help revive, or at least stabilize, enrollment.
Clark said the college is beginning to develop a multi-year strategic enrollment management plan.
“We know we’ve only just scratched the surface after hearing from our students and our wider community about their experiences and needs,” Clark said. “Our hope is that we can learn more through the strategic enrollment planning process in which we will delve deeper into the student experience; We can learn more about what drives people’s choices, and perhaps what things could encourage them to make different choices.”
PCC is working with a national company — Ruffalo Noel Levitz — to collaborate on the strategic enrollment management plan, and Clark said the college will work with the entire community, including students, staff, faculty and administrators, to discuss common goals.
“This is an exciting time for us because not only are we going to be doing this type of strategic enrollment planning work, but we also have these bond dollars at the same time that will actually allow us to execute on some of the strategic steps that we need to take to to be prepared for the students of the future,” said Clark.
Regarding the upgrades the bond will bring to the college’s campus, Clark agreed that a balance between in-person and online student services is critical.
“The future is really a lot more flexible, and that’s where student expectations lie, and we need to make sure our entire infrastructure is as flexible as those expectations,” he said.
PCC in another decade
Many of the changes PCC is making will not happen immediately.
Rebecca Ocken, PCC’s interim director of planning and capital construction, said the college will soon begin some of the deferred maintenance projects and updates, and she said it hopes to begin designing the new building updates on the Rock Creek campus next year to be able to start.
As for plans to update existing classrooms for a future with more hybrid learning opportunities, it’s not yet clear what that will look like.
“Because this is a 16-year bond, we have some time and want to see where the technology takes us,” Ocken said. “The infrastructure behind the technology that we really need to improve so that we can deal with whatever comes our way in the future – that’s what we’re going to focus on now, and then what’s playing out in the classroom needs to be a coordinated effort with.” our academic and student leadership of the campus and college.”
Clark said the college’s enrollment will not return to where it was a decade ago anytime soon. But he said he thinks it’s on the way to stabilization — particularly with a much smaller decline in overall enrollments this fall compared to years past and a slight increase in new students.