Handling a ‘surge in popularity’: How area community colleges are expanding to meet changing student demands

Southwest Ohio’s four community colleges have seen explosive growth as the cost of a four-year degree and the demand for skilled workers continues to spike.

Sinclair, Clark State, Edison State and Cincinnati State have expanded beyond their four main campuses in recent years to 17 locations in six counties where they offer two-year degrees, certificate programs and soon bachelor’s degrees.

Waning is the idea that community colleges are backup schools or a place for students who aren’t quite ready to attend a university. That shift in perception is propelling the region’s community colleges and some education and business leaders don’t see the growth slowing.

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“You’ve seen a surge in popularity with community colleges driven largely by students,” said Jack Hershey, president of the Ohio Association of Community Colleges. “They’re looking at community colleges more and more as an affordable option and as the same quality as what you would find at a university.”

Average tuition and fees costs around $3,679 per year at Ohio’s community colleges, nearly $10,000 annually at public four-year universities and almost $32,000 annually at private universities, according to a 2018 Chronicle of Higher Education database.

Surging interest and workforce demands have fueled expansions across the nation, according to the Community College Review, and Ohio’s institutions are a prime example of their prosperity.

Sinclair is opening a Centerville facility this winter and Edison State Community College plans to open locations in Troy and Eaton, a spot that Sinclair recently vacated. Clark State Community College is opening a new joint facility in Xenia and in the past five years opened a location in Beavercreek. Cincinnati State opened a Middletown location in 2012.

“We analyze where we offer things,” said Michael Brown, interim vice president of academic affairs at Clark State. “We’re always looking at where our students come from, what zip codes they live in.”

The expansions are a sign of strength at community colleges right now, said Patty Jackson, senior vice president of PNC Bank’s Ohio Public Finance Group in Columbus.

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College enrollments are usually at their highest when the economy takes a dive as it did in 2008 because people go back to school to get training for a new job, Jackson said.

Tuition is typically the highest source of revenue for schools, so when enrollment jumps during a recession it means community colleges bring in more tuition revenue. Since the economy is strong right now, community colleges will likely only see their current success continue, Jackson said, even if a recession pops up.

“If they’re growing during an expanding economy, the statistics show that they will do even better during a downturn,” she said.

Expanding programs 

With more facilities, area community colleges are widening their programs and the medical field is their prime target.

Just last week, Sinclair announced it would seek to create a joint nursing program with the University of Dayton in response to increased demand for nurses with bachelor’s degrees. The two schools are seeking to create two paths for students to get bachelor’s degrees through a mix of classes at Sinclair and UD.

“This is just more opportunity to get these numbers up. In other words, (Ohio University) has a nursing program, Wright State has a nursing program, but it’s still not enough,” Sinclair president Steve Johnson said.

The Sinclair-UD announcement comes on the heels of the college opening up a brand new health sciences center just over a year ago in downtown Dayton.

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Clark State is also going after the nursing industry. For the first time this fall, the school began offering its registered nursing program at its Greene Center near Interstate 675 in Beavercreek.

Three area community colleges also have higher aspirations. Clark State, Sinclair and Cincinnati State have all submitted proposals for applied four-year degrees, widening the scope of offerings at the traditionally two-year schools.

In March, Sinclair and Cincinnati State each had two degrees get initial approval from the Ohio Department of Higher Education and must now get the green-light from a regional accrediting agency.

With final approval, Sinclair could begin offering a bachelor’s degree in unmanned aerial systems and another in aviation while Cincinnati State could offer four-year programs in land surveying and culinary and food science, according to the state. Clark State’s proposal, a four-year degree in manufacturing technology management was at first deferred by the state as was a third concept from Sinclair for a four-year degree in industrial automation. Clark State’s degree proposal was later approved by the state at the end of May.

Growing pains 

With growth sometimes comes trouble though as Sinclair encountered in Preble County.

Earlier this year, the school announced it would close its location in Eaton amid “sustainability concerns” dating back to 2015. Though enrollment at the Preble County location was strong when it opened in 2009, it began to dip in 2013 and never fully recovered, according to Sinclair.

“We would have hoped it would have been different but we’re not surprised,” Johnson said. “We were quite reluctant to go into that and so we went into it with eyes wide open.”

Some trouble Sinclair couldn’t have predicted when it first opened its Preble County center was that Indiana would begin offering in-state tuition to its Ivy Tech community colleges and Indiana East University. Eaton, where Sinclair’s center was located, is under a 30-minute drive to Richmond, Indiana, 10 minutes less than it is to downtown Dayton where Sinclair’s main campus is located.

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Johnson said Sinclair didn’t “sink a whole bunch of money” into its Preble County learning center. At the end of fiscal year 2017, the Preble County location generated around $42,000 in net revenue for Sinclair and in fiscal year 2018, the learning center had lost around $201,000, according to Sinclair.

“We have taken a very thoughtful, measured approach,” Johnson said. “We only go to the next stage if it makes sense to go to the next stage.”

Now, Edison State plans to take over Sinclair’s old Preble County spot. Despite Sinclair’s trouble in Preble County, Edison State leaders aren’t worried about how their offerings will fare, said Chad Beanblossom, vice president of Edison State’s regional campuses.

Edison State has a history of serving more rural communities, Beanblossom said. The school’s main campus is located in Piqua and its first branch campus is in Greenville, the seat of Darke County.

Though expanding rapidly can be a big risk, Beanblossom said its not something the school takes lightly.

“I think the leadership team at Edison State has definitely thought about that,” he said. “We’re not too worried that we’re growing too fast but we certainly have kept that in mind.”


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