VERSAILLES — Enrollment has dropped in the Kentucky Community and Technical College System for the first time since it began in 1998.
The drop is slight, only 650 students, or 0.7 percent, in the 16 KCTCS colleges, according to preliminary figures.
But the decline runs counter to the national trend for community colleges this fall. And it calls into question whether growth was stymied by state budget cuts and the inability of KCTCS to raise tuition as much as it wanted, which has prompted cutbacks on classes and staffing.
News of the Kentucky situation surprised Scott Jaschik, co-editor of InsideHigherEd.com.
"The trend we've been reporting this year is that enrollment is up significantly at community colleges, and a lot of community colleges are reporting double-digit increases," Jaschik said.
He invoked a cardinal principle of higher education, that if the economy is bad "it generally creates an enrollment boom," and if the economy is good — and thus more jobs are available — enrollment goes down.
But in an interview Tuesday, KCTCS President Michael McCall said the culprit was the treatment KCTCS got last May from the state Council on Postsecondary Education.
KCTCS asked the state council for a 13 percent tuition increase — the biggest percentage increase sought by any Kentucky public institution.
However, the council limited KCTCS to a 5.2 percent increase for in-state tuition this fall, pushing the annual cost to $3,630.
As a result, McCall said, KCTCS was left with $11.5 million less than it needed in tuition revenue, forcing many cuts in faculty, staff, courses and degree programs.
"I've had some people say we weren't treated equitably," said McCall, who bitterly fought the council's decision.
"I think we would have grown another 5 or 6 percent" with more tuition revenue, he said.
KCTCS has reduced faculty and staff by 240; eliminated what had been productive degree programs on one or more campuses of 10 colleges; capped enrollment in one or more programs at 12 colleges; offered fewer courses or sections of courses at 14 colleges; increased the maximum number of students in classes at nine colleges; and reduced services to students and businesses at colleges.
In Louisville, Jefferson Community College capped enrollment at its downtown campus because it lacked enough teachers; and Owensboro Community and Technical College has stopped opening its libraries on weekends.
McCall met last week with the 16 college presidents and said they are "pinching every penny they can."
The biggest losses in enrollment were 10 percent drops at the Hazard and West Kentucky, located in Paducah, community and technical colleges.
But enrollment is not down everywhere.
By contrast, business is booming at Henderson, up 7.2 percent; Gateway (Northern Kentucky), up 5.4 percent; and Bluegrass (Lexington) up 5 percent.
McCall said that KCTCS still needs more state money, but he fears another cut because state revenue is down.
However, he said KCTCS is about to launch a major effort to attract more adult learners to online education.
KCTCS currently has about 22,000 students online, while the University of Phoenix is second in the state with more than 800 students.
McCall said marketing research shows that Kentucky has a big market of adult learners eager to earn a degree if they can do it online. He predicted KCTCS will gain another 10,000 online students in the next three years.
And McCall said it won't be long before KCTCS has 100,000 students, essentially twice as many as it had when it began in 1998.