DIXON – Nontraditional student enrollment at Sauk Valley Community College is down almost 20 percent, officials reported.
The economy is improving and more people are entering the job market, officials said.
State unemployment rates have dropped, from 10.2 percent in August 2011 to 9.1 percent in August 2012. State unemployment was at 8.7 percent for November. (seasonally adjusted and reported in December)
At the same time, full-time nontraditional enrollment has fallen 19.4 percent since fall 2011, and part-time enrollment has dropped 12.5 percent.
"There's a very strong correlation with community college enrollment and the unemployment rate," said Steve Nunez, dean of institutional research and planning.
More people, especially nontraditional students who relied on federal aid or special retraining dollars, now might be unable to afford college, officials said.
Nontraditional students, as defined by the Illinois Community College Board, are those older than 24. They could include those who are married, have children or are returning to school after a long time away.
The federal government lowered the ceiling to qualify for Pell grants, from $30,000 to $23,000; those who once had a low enough income to qualify no longer are eligible.
The federal government also reduced Workforce Investment Act funding.
So, with nontraditional enrollment down, does that mean Sauk has fulfilled its purpose of retraining displaced workers after the economic downturn?
"I think we have," college President George Mihel said. "We certainly have tried."
Sauk long has played a role in retraining workers after a plant closure, officials said. But the college can't retrain every employee of those shuttered factories, they said.
"My gut feeling is we probably haven't captured all the retraining opportunities that have existed – but it's not for a lack of trying on our part," Mihel said.
Patricia Austin of Dixon turned to the local community college after she lost her job as a receptionist in 2009, shortly before the Johnson Controls plant in Dixon closed.
"I wasn't able to find immediate employment," Austin said. "I had always wanted to obtain a degree, and I'm now on the path to get my bachelor's [degree].
"Sauk was my first thought."
The 38-year-old mother of three chose the college not only for its convenient location and low price tag, but also for its faculty and small class sizes.
Austin already has her associate degree in business management and will graduate in May with another associate degree in business. She plans to transfer to a 4-year university to earn her bachelor's in business administration.
"I'm leaning toward human resources," Austin said, "but I think with a business administration degree, it broadens the field as far as what positions I can apply for."
Students who attain their degrees in career-technical fields quickly find employment within their field, according to voluntary follow-up surveys of graduates.
"From the data we have, we seem to do an excellent job in fulfilling that promise of getting a degree and finding employment," Nunez said.
Nontraditional students typically return to school with a degree in mind; less than 6 percent of students are undecided upon enrollment.
Most enter terminal programs, or those that result in degrees and enable them to jump into the workforce with their new skills. Nursing is extremely popular. HVAC and welding also are popular choices, although spaces are limited.
Sauk has added and changed its offerings based on the needs of the community, officials said.
"There are jobs out there that pay relatively well that you can get by with a 2-year degree," said Alan Pfeifer, dean of information services.
The college recently added a multicraft program in which students study electronics, HVAC, welding and alternative energy to prepare them for engineering and manufacturing careers.
It also added a fire science program and amped up its welding program.
Sauk plans to conduct an environmental community scan by phone in the coming months to further assess the needs to the community and learn how the community views the college and its role in the area.
Austin feels well prepared for her new career in business because of her experience at the college. She has even pushed her children to start there, then move on to a 4-year university, if they desire.
"I guess I'm a true Sauk believer," Austin said.