Portland Community College has seen a large drop in enrollment over the past decade, but officials have hope for its future. The college will make campus improvements thanks to a historic bond, and it’s taking a strategic look at enrollment management — all with student needs in mind.
A $450 million PCC bond passed overwhelmingly in the midterm elections, with about 60% voter support. That money will go toward expanding career technical education spaces at the PCC Rock Creek campus in Washington County as well as basic facility updates at other campuses for things like accessibility, lighting, ventilation and plumbing.
Bond money will also go toward making upgrades to existing classrooms with both online and in-person learning in mind.
PCC officials say they’re paying special attention to what students are needing out of their college experience, especially as things shift after two years of primarily online operations.
“This particular bond was really informed by the pandemic in the last couple of years when we had to really switch to a lot of remote operations,” said Kurt Simonds, interim executive dean for college operations at PCC.
Simonds told OPB that the balance between in-person and online operations is important to the college moving forward especially in regard to the diverse community PCC serves. Many of PCC’s students are older, have jobs, families and other priorities outside of school.
Many of those students enjoyed the flexibility that virtual classes offered at the start of the pandemic, he said. But, many of those same students still want to get back on campus.
Simonds said that the college offers three primary learning modalities: fully online, asynchronous classes — without scheduled class times; remote, synchronous classes — classes over Zoom that do have scheduled meeting times; and on-campus classes.
Prior to the pandemic, in fall 2019, about 20% of PCC classes were online, according to data from the college. Last fall, about 80% of classes were online or remote. That number has lowered a bit this fall, with about 48% of classes being online or remote.
Simonds said the college will continue having a balance of different class modalities for students moving forward. The bond improvements reflect that.
“What we’re finding as we come back to a new kind of normal post-pandemic is that many students want to continue with online learning and remote learning because of the convenience and access it provides to them, but many other students really want to be back on campus,” he said.
Strategic moves for stability
Regardless of if they want to attend class in-person or online, PCC’s student population has gotten smaller over the years. Part of planning for the college’s future will also include analyzing that loss, and how to potentially turn it around.
Student headcount fell roughly 26% from fall of 2019 to this fall, according to data from Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission.
But, even before that, PCC has been seeing fewer and fewer students. The college currently has about 42% fewer students than it did in 2012.
Ryan Clark, dean of enrollment strategy and services at PCC, said the college is facing many of the same challenges as other community colleges across the country.
“Our number one competitor where we’re losing students to is nowhere. Students are choosing not to enroll, period,” Clark said. “I think that really speaks to this perfect storm of inflation, low unemployment, just a really uncertain environment that folks are in.”
Even prior to the pandemic, Clark said some students at community colleges like PCC faced growing housing costs that pushed them outside of city limits. Other students are weighing the opportunity cost of going to college with some entry-level jobs offering higher wages, and wanting to avoid student debt.
Still, PCC officials are hopeful that investing in its campuses, and in students’ needs, could help bump enrollment back up, or at least stabilize it.
Clark said the college is starting to develop a multi-year strategic enrollment management plan.
“We know that we have just scratched the surface on hearing from our students as well as our larger community on their experiences and what their needs are,” Clark said. “Our hope is that through the strategic enrollment planning process where we’re going to do deeper dives into the student experience, is that we can learn more; we can learn more about what’s driving people’s decisions and maybe what sorts of things might encourage them to make different decisions.”
PCC is working with a national company — Ruffalo Noel Levitz — to partner on the strategic enrollment management plan, and Clark said the college will be engaging with the entire community including students, staff, faculty and administrators, to discuss collective goals.
“This is an exciting time for us that we not only are going to be doing this kind of strategic enrollment planning work, but we also at the same time have these bond dollars that will actually allow us to enact some of the strategic moves that we need to make to be ready for the students of the future,” Clark said.
As for the upgrades the bond will bring to the college’s campuses, Clark agreed that a balance of in-person and online services for students is crucial.
“The future really is much more flexible, and that’s where student expectations are at, and we need to make sure that all of our infrastructure is as flexible as those expectations are,” he said.
PCC another decade from now
Many of the changes PCC makes won’t be immediate.
PCC’s Interim Director of Planning and Capital Construction, Rebecca Ocken, said the college will start on some of the deferred maintenance projects and updates soon, and she said it hopes to start with design on the new Rock Creek campus building updates next year.
As for plans to update existing classrooms for a future of more hybrid learning opportunities, it’s not yet clear what that will look like.
“Because this is a 16-year bond, we’ve got some time, and we want to see where technology takes us,” said Ocken. “The infrastructure behind technology that we really need to beef up so that we can handle whatever does come our way in the future — that’s what we’ll be focusing on now, and then what plays out in the classroom needs to be a coordinated effort with our academic and student affairs leadership of the campuses and college.”
Clark said the college’s enrollment won’t be rebounding back to where it was a decade ago anytime soon. But, he said he thinks it’s on a path to stabilization — especially with a much slighter decrease in overall enrollment this fall compared to past years, and a slight increase in new students.