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College officials say there were multiple factors that led to this year's increased enrollment

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FARMINGTON — San Juan College experienced its first enrollment increase in seven years this fall — a 3.5 percent bump that reverses a long slide of declining student numbers.

Enrollment for the fall semester stood at 6,595 students — a substantial increase over the 6,369 students who were on campus last fall. This is the first time the college's enrollment has increased since 2012, when it posted a 0.4 percent increase.

"These numbers represent people," said Boomer Appleman, the school's vice president of student services. "When we see a 3.5 percent increase, that feels good. But when you seen an increase in the number of people working toward fulfilling their dreams, that's where the rubber meets the road. … That's really our bottom line. We're helping the residents of New Mexico become the people they want to be, and the benefits of that attainment are generational."

The college saw its enrollment numbers improve in a number of categories. Its number of first-time students improved by 6.5 percent, the number of transfer students climbed by 13.3 percent and the number of high school students enrolled in dual-credit classes ballooned by 23 percent.

As encouraging as those figures are, SJC still has a long way to go before it returns to its 2012 enrollment level — the last year before the decline began. Fall enrollment that year stood at 8,798 — approximately 2,200 more students than are currently enrolled.

But Ron Jernigan, senior director of institutional research at the college, said part of the reason for the precipitous decline in enrollment over the last seven years can be explained by some policy changes that simply reclassified some students.

Before those changes, the college was operating some programs in its School of Energy and health center as academic programs. School officials decided those students would be better served by moving those energy programs to the nonacademic Center for Workforce Development and privatizing some of the health-related programs.

Those changes resulted in the loss of approximately 2,000 students from academic programs. Jernigan acknowledged the college's academic enrollment also declined during that period, but he said the reclassification of the programs made the decrease appear to be more substantial than it was.

Appleman said SJC was not alone in seeing declining enrollment in recent years.

"That follows the national trend," he said. "We are not the anomaly."

A pleasant surprise

This year's enrollment increase was not unexpected, Appleman said, but it was even better than what officials were projecting.

"Looking early on in the cycle, we felt really confident about a 1 to 1.5 percent increase, so to see 3.5 percent beat our expectation," he said. "That means we're doing a little better than we thought we were doing."

He attributed the enrollment bump to several factors, including more aggressive outreach efforts to new students to battle a phenomenon widely referred to as "summer melt." The term summer melt refers to the number of students who are admitted to and perhaps even enroll in the college in the spring, but who don’t follow through and show up for classes in the fall.

"We made a conscious effort to reach them on a one-on-one basis," Appleman said. " … We really wanted to negate that melt effect."

Judging by the 13.3 percent surge in new students this fall, that effort seems to have paid off — an achievement few colleges can match, he said.

"We bucked the trend from what other schools are doing," Appleman said.

The reverse in the trend of declining enrollment is also a result of the school's effort to re-evaluate its processes on an institution-wide basis and make changes where they were deemed necessary, he said.

"We looked at everything through a fine-tooth comb," Appleman said. "Does this make the student walk away with a positive feeling and improve students' chances of success? Those were the questions we asked. If we couldn't say yes to both of them, we improved it."

He cited the changes the school made to its "onboarding process" — a term that covers everything from the recruitment of new students to the completion of their first semester at SJC. Appleman said college officials mapped out everything that was involved in that, and, to their surprise, they discovered that what they had envisioned as a one- or two-point process actually was an eight- to 10-point process. The complicated nature of that experience, they realized, likely was driving away students.

College officials are trying to identify and eliminate other such hurdles in an attempt to further boost enrollment.

"That doesn't mean we're becoming academically less rigorous," Appleman said. "It just means all the rest of the stuff shouldn't be so difficult."

Jernigan said SJC is committed to providing increased support for students in academic areas through increased availability of labs and study times, as well as nonacademic areas, such as housing and supplies. They hope their plans to offer on-campus housing for the first time in the next few years will serve as a major attraction for new students from outside the region.

"If you're from outside the Four Corners area, one of the questions you have is, 'Where would I live?'" Appleman said. "(Not having) a vehicle is not an issue when you live on campus. Food is not an issue when you live on campus because of the meal plan. And it's been proven that students who live on campus do better academically. They graduate faster with higher GPAs."

Plenty of credit to go around

Appleman emphasized there was no magic bullet to explain the college's enrollment turnaround this year.

"I want to be clear about this," he said. "There were no great maneuvers here. It was just constant, continual improvement."

That kind of approach will help the college maintain improved enrollment numbers over the long term, he believes.

"I think San Juan College, through its strategic efforts for a number of years, has been put in place for just this (kind of success) and can continue to grow in future years," he said. "I say let's be cautiously optimistic — look for the best, but plan for the worst, and try to achieve success that's sustainable within this range. I think we can sustain growth of 2.5 to 3 percent for a number of years."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610.

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