Enrollment in Florida's 28 state colleges is expected to remain relatively flat this year, although several schools are reporting effects from Hurricane Irma.
State analysts on Tuesday projected an enrollment of the equivalent of 320,691 full-time students in the 2017-18 academic year, a decline of 209 students from last year.
Since 65 percent of the students attend state colleges on a part-time basis, each of the “full-time equivalents,” or FTEs, represents about 2.5 students, making the actual head count around 800,000 students.
Florida State College at Jacksonville has the largest projected decline for this year based on the new estimate. The school will lose more than 1,862 FTEs, or a decline of 9.8 percent from the prior year, when 18,908 students were enrolled.
FSCJ officials cited the impact of Irma, which caused extensive flooding in Duval County, as one of the factors in the decline, as well as the implementation of a new software system on campus.
Florida Keys Community College, the smallest school in the system, reported a significant hurricane impact, with Irma striking the Keys as a Category 4 storm with 130 mph winds in September.
Florida Keys originally projected an enrollment of 744 FTEs this year. But analysts readjusted the projected enrollment to 721 students, a 3 percent decline.
In a report to the Division of Florida Colleges, Florida Keys officials said the reduction was justified.
“After Hurricane Wilma in 2005, the college experienced a 20 percent drop enrollment,” the report said. “While we do not anticipate the impact of Hurricane Irma to be as severe as with Wilma, it is prudent to note that direct hit hurricanes on our service area create a decrease in enrollment.”
School officials said Irma has disrupted the population in the Keys, including damaging more than 10,000 homes.
“The full effect on spring enrollment is unknown,” the school said. “The college and the citizens of Monroe County are known for their resilient spirit and `can do' attitude. We will work through this unfortunate catastrophe but we cannot ignore that it happened.”
If Florida Keys can maintain an enrollment of 721 FTEs this year, the decline may not be too severe, since that is the same number of students who were enrolled at the school at the end of the last academic year on June 30, according to state data.
School officials said Irma closed the campus for a 10-day period in September and disrupted “normal college operations,” including a registration period for a 12-week session that began Sept. 18.
The new software system had some implementation difficulties that affected “student registration functionality,” school officials said.
“Many of these issues have been mitigated for future terms,” FSCJ said in a report to the state. “However, we do expect to see a decline for college credit. FSCJ is optimistic that a new marketing campaign as well as organized strategic enrollment management efforts will bring greater enrollments in spring 2018.”
Enrollment fluctuations are common for state colleges. When the economy is strong, fewer students tend to enroll or fewer enroll full time because they have more job opportunities. When unemployment rises, more students enroll, looking to improve their skills or academic credentials to find jobs.
Polk State College cited that trend as the new projection shows the school losing 226 FTEs in the current year, down 3.4 percent from last year's 6,582 students.
“Due to the ongoing economic recovery in the area served by the college, student enrollment is projected to decline slightly as our target student demographic increasingly chooses full-time employment over full-time higher education,” the school said.
Since an enrollment peak of 375,292 FTEs in the 2010-11 academic year, the overall college system enrollment has declined 14.5 percent or 54,601 fewer FTEs, the state data showed.
The new college enrollment estimate was made by analysts from the House, Senate, governor's office, the Department of Education and the Office of Economic and Demographic Research.