After jumping 25 percent during the economic crash in 2008-10, Rogue Community College enrollment has started to decline, which school administrators say is a sure sign of the economy's improvement.
At the 10th week of this fall term, RCC's enrollment had declined from the previous year by 4.25 percent. That percentage represents 737 people, but only the equivalent of 66 full-time students. The college has campuses in Medford and Grants Pass.
"It's to be expected and it's not a dramatic decrease, especially given the huge increase a few years ago," said RCC registrar Claudia Sullivan. She said most of this year's loss was in "continuous education," which includes noncredit areas such as workforce development, basic skills, community education and retraining requested by area businesses.
Enrollment in the for-credit areas of academic and technical/professional — the main mission of the college — declined by 3.4 percent from a year ago, said Sullivan. Continuous education declined 9 percent from a year ago.
"The good news is that many students graduated and went out on the job market," Sullivan said.
Another factor in the decline, she noted, was the expiration of federal funding for retraining workers laid off when their jobs went overseas to cheaper labor markets.
"Students on retraining funds could stay on unemployment," she said, "but they knew the money was limited and they had that incentive and knew they couldn't dally around."
Those students retrained in two-year programs for technical and computer sciences, as well as fire science, emergency medical, criminal justice, early childhood education, dental assistant, practical nursing and massage, Sullivan said.
Other causes of the enrollment pullback, she said, are stricter rules on eligibility for job retraining, as well as expiring unemployment benefits.
"In addition, our students are not the traditional college students," she said. "The average age is 31, so they are adults with families and jobs — people juggling a lot of personal obligations and they're going to do what they need to do to support their families. When employment is up, our numbers go down and that's a good thing."
The total RCC head count is now 11,244 students, representing a full-time equivalent total of 1,487. The totals a year ago were 11,981 and 1,553 FTEs.
Of Oregon's 17 community colleges, eight showed declines in enrollment, according to figures posted by the Oregon Department of Community Colleges and Workforce Development. RCC showed the smallest decline of community colleges in Southern Oregon. Umpqua Community College in Roseburg reported a 20 percent decline in students.
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at email@example.com.