Driven by high schoolers, FCC enrollment begins to rebound from pandemic

Sep. 23—Frederick Community College's enrollment numbers this semester show the beginnings of a rebound from pandemic-related drops, but officials this week expressed concern about an ongoing decline in students older than 18.

Overall, FCC's enrollment is up about 8% this year compared to where it was in the fall of 2021, when it reached its lowest point in recent years.

But the majority of that growth is driven by a steady increase in dual-enrollment students, which has prompted budgetary concerns among the community college's leadership.

Dual-enrollment students — who are high schoolers in Frederick County Public Schools, but also take some classes through FCC — account for 32% of the college's total enrollment this semester.

FCPS frequently touts its dual-enrollment program as one of the most robust in the state. FCC officials echoed that characterization at a Board of Trustees meeting Wednesday.

"If I talk to colleagues across the country, they would say that's very high," FCC President Annesa Cheek said at the meeting.

Dual-enrollment numbers have nearly doubled in the past six years, while FCC's traditional student population has declined.

And because dual-enrollment students get significant discounts on their FCC tuition, college officials said they planned to take a closer look at the financial impact of the program's continued growth.

More than 80% of FCPS dual-enrollment students take their college courses at their high school rather than driving to FCC's campus.

High-school-based dual-enrollment classes are taught by FCPS teachers certified by FCC, and students don't need to pay for textbooks. Their tuition also doesn't have to factor in FCC costs for rent or building maintenance.

FCPS students who take these courses, therefore, only pay 43% of the typical FCC tuition rate per credit hour, FCC Provost and Academic Affairs Vice President Tony Hawkins said in an interview.

The roughly 200 high school students who chose to drive to FCC's campus and take courses from FCC instructors this semester will pay 75% of the typical tuition rate, Hawkins said.

Students who qualify for free and reduced-priced meals can take dual-enrollment courses for free.

One-third of FCC's total revenue comes from student tuition, Hawkins said.

So as dual-enrollment students become a bigger portion of FCC's total population, its overall revenues fall, Hawkins said.

"There is a tipping point," he said. "There's a point where we start to not have enough money to run the college, because a third of our tuition is discounted."

If the college's traditional population was growing at the same rate as its dual-enrollment program, there wouldn't be a problem, Hawkins said. But that's not the case.

The number of students age 18 to 24 has fallen 18% in the past six years, while the number of students 25 and older has fallen 32%.

The number of students 17 and younger, meanwhile, has jumped 66% over the same time frame.

"Enrollment is up because dual enrollment is up," Cheek said of this semester's enrollment boost. "Foot traffic on this campus is not up, because most of the enrollment is in the high schools."

College officials said they would continue discussions with FCPS on potential modifications to the dual-enrollment model.

Cheek said FCC should prioritize workforce development programs to attract older students.

"We need to figure out how to stop the decline in our traditional student population," Hawkins said. "And if we're able to do that, then that will help us all."

Follow Jillian Atelsek on Twitter: @jillian_atelsek