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As college enrollment levels off, campuses can re-evaluate service

The enrollment slide recorded at some area colleges and universities is part of what looks like a nationwide trend. After several years of scrambling to accommodate booming admissions, it’s also an opportunity to regroup and focus on the right formula for serving students.

Ivy Tech, IPFW and most other northeast Indiana campuses saw slight decreases or increases in enrollment. Only Indiana Tech saw a major increase this fall, according to Monday’s report by The Journal Gazette’s Julie Crothers.

Nationwide, the drop-off began last year, with Census Bureau figures showing 467,000 fewer students enrolled in higher education.

Nearly 420,000 of those students were 25 and older, a sign that improving employment lured adults back to the job force.

Declining campus enrollment creates budget challenges, but it also allows for more attention to what works in retaining students and helping them to graduate. It’s a necessity for the larger public institutions because Indiana is among the states allocating support based on retention, course completion and graduation rates. The funding formula is far from perfect, particularly for IPFW and Ivy Tech. But it does encourage the schools to examine why students drop out or transfer.

President Barack Obama’s higher education address last month called for legislation to tie student aid to academic performance, favoring colleges that are “helping students from all kinds of backgrounds succeed.” If his plan becomes law, it should further increase pressure on schools to better serve current students, as well as remind students that aid comes with an expectation of finishing a degree.

The challenge is in finding the money to hire and train advisers and counselors and in offering support students need. One bright spot in college enrollment trends is a continuing increase in Hispanic and black enrollment, but it comes with additional demands on services for students who disproportionately are the first in their families to attend college.

The college-numbers boom might be waning, but the slowdown isn’t all bad. If colleges and universities have the time and resources to balance student needs with a high-quality academic experience, the increases will be seen where they count – in the number of graduates in two or four years.

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