College Enrollment Swells

More people are taking college courses this fall.

Enrollment is up at area campuses -- community colleges are seeing small, solid student increases, while four-year universities are expanding by leaps and bounds.

California State University, Stanislaus, enrolled 462 more students this fall than last -- setting records for most freshmen (988) and total student enrollment (8,836).

In its third year, the University of California at Merced enrolled 585 more students than last fall -- bringing its total to 1,871.

Officials attributed the increases to improved recruiting efforts at high schools, a tighter job market and more intense pushes to build student populations.

UC Merced and Stanislaus State also have more minority students, specifically Latinos and Asians.

Growth at area colleges mirrors a nationwide trend of slow but steady enrollment increases. Through 2014, the National Center for Education Statistics projects a rise of

11 percent in enrollments of people younger than 25, and an increase of 15 percent in the number 25 and older.

Community college enrollment ebbs and flows with the economy. Modesto Junior College and Columbia College enrolled more students because of slumps in the economy and housing market, as well as the drop in student fees from $26 a unit to $20, officials said.

"The economy definitely impacts enrollment trends -- the downturn in the housing market, the stock market going crazy -- people are looking to upgrade their skills," said George Railey, MJC dean of instruc- tional services. And after lowering the tuition, California community colleges "are the best deal anywhere," he said.

MJC enrollment rose 2.3 percent to 18,934, and Columbia's expanded 3.8 percent to 3,311 students this fall.

The exponential expansion of online courses offered by area colleges also is boosting enrollment. Many students work, so online classes offer invaluable flexibility. Most students take a combination of online and in-class courses.

About one-third of MJC's students take online classes. Stanislaus State has 500 students enrolled in 18 courses, a fourfold increase over its inaugural program last year.

Also called distance learning, Internet classes are a money-maker for colleges because those students are less likely to be on campus and use support services, check in at health centers or exercise at campus gyms.

"Online is our fastest-growing area. We're expanding and focusing additional resources in that direction," Railey said. "It's an integral part of the entire curriculum."

Other enrollment trends:

A larger portion of Stanislaus State's students are coming from its six surrounding counties. The number is 85.7 percent compared with 81.7 percent in 2002.

Area campuses, especially UC Merced, are more racially and socioeconomically diverse than their counterparts across the state.

More students are taking classes at Stanislaus State's Stockton Center -- enrollment jumped 9 percent to 1,100.

A growing percentage of UC Merced's student body consists of first-generation college students -- 52.2 percent this fall compared with 45 percent in 2005.

Not all the enrollment statistics are bragging material, however:

MJC's head count is less than its height of 19,338 in fall 2002. Officials acknowledge that they need to work harder at retaining students.

UC Merced's enrollment, while a jump of 45 percent from last fall, falls short of the initial goal to start with 1,000 students in 2005 and add that number each year. Based on those numbers, the campus meets slightly more than half that benchmark. Leaders say original projections were never considered very "reliable."

UC Merced student growth is slower than the beginning years of the most recently opened UC campuses in San Diego, Irvine and Santa Cruz -- all of which opened in 1965. By the third year, enrollment at those campuses was at 3,604, 3,198 and 2,638, respectively.

Fall numbers for UC Merced show a lag in the percentage of San Joaquin Valley students choosing the college. Thirty percent come from the valley, compared with 35 percent in 2006 and 34.1 percent in 2005. The campus was built in Merced with the mission of serving valley students.

"Our long-range goal is to have 50 percent of students coming from the valley," which will materialize as university partnerships increase area high school students' qualifications and competitiveness, said Jane Law-rence, UC Merced vice chancellor of student affairs.

Qualifications of incoming Stanislaus State students are lagging. For this fall, first-time freshmen had a mean grade point average of 3.22, the lowest in 10 years. Average GPAs for the past decade remained level, with an average of 3.25.

The fall 2007 average SAT score was also lower than the 10-year average -- 951 compared with 958.

Campus leaders are keeping in mind that an expanding student population requires hiring additional faculty and staff.

Stanislaus State Associate Vice President Roger Pugh said the college is working on increasing staffing levels after lags in 2003 and 2004 during state budget cuts.

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at mhatfield@modbee.com or 578-2339.