Too Few Students

South Dakota's private, two-year Kilian Community College is closing, finding it couldn't survive an enrollment decline and increased competition.

December 3, 2015
Kilian Community College in South Dakota

Many community colleges are seeing drops in their enrollments this year.

Unless the college is an anomaly like those in Tennessee experiencing an influx of students eager to take advantage of two-years-free initiatives, community colleges across the country are in the middle of the traditional cyclical enrollment pattern that occurs when the economy improves. Many colleges, like they have done in the past, will survive the decreases in students exiting their doors. But others, like Kilian Community College in South Dakota, won't.

The Sioux Falls-area college isn't a community college in the traditional sense. It's a private, nonprofit college, but Kilian shares with community colleges the mission of offering associate degrees in liberal arts and sciences, as well as targeting nontraditional-age students.

"The enrollment has been a slow decline for five years, but this year it dropped significantly, about 25 percent from about a year ago," said Mark Millage, president of the college, which announced last week that it will close its doors in May. "We're a small, one-building school, so it was small to begin with, and South Dakota doesn't have a statewide community college system. We're a private [nonprofit], which presents unique challenges."

In 2005, the college saw its enrollment reach a peak of about 600 students, but that has since fallen to about 150 students enrolled this fall, Millage said, adding that the college caters to adult learners.

Enrollments have fallen across the board in both community colleges and for-profits as students over the age of 24 return to the workforce. The national unemployment rate has fallen to 5 percent -- the lowest it's been since April 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

A report by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center in May revealed enrollment at two-year public colleges was down 3.9 percent compared to last year. The research center doesn't count two-year private institutions because of their small numbers, however, they are included in enrollment totals for all colleges and universities, which were also down 1.9 percent -- to fewer than 18.6 million students -- when compared to spring 2014. Those decreases are mostly due to the 24-and-older population, which has declined by 3.6 percent, to about seven million.

"Declining enrollments are not a surprise at all. The nature of community college enrollments tends to be cyclical with many contributing factors," said Martha Parham, vice president of marketing and public relations for the American Association of Community Colleges, in an email. "During good economic times, community college enrollments tend to dip as more of our students are working. Enrollments trend higher when the economy is not so favorable, as many students are looking to retrain or learn new skills in order to qualify for jobs."

Parham said neither she nor the research staff at the AACC could recall the last time a public community college closed.

"Some community colleges have merged with others, but none have closed in the same manner as Kilian," she said.

Parham is referring to the merger of Compton Community College with El Camino Community College after the former lost its accreditation in 2006. An Inside Higher Ed analysis of federal data on closed colleges found the last two-year college to close was private, nonprofit Lebanon College in New Hampshire, in December 2014.

Millage said he's been asked by former Kilian trustees and others who have been involved with the college for decades why the institution can't survive these enrollment drops as it did in the past. The college was founded in 1977.

"But what's different locally is that it's a much more competitive environment than 10 years ago," he said. "Since that time we've opened up a university center in Sioux Falls that targets adult learners, several for-profit colleges have opened up …. It's no longer a local landscape anymore, it's worldwide with online learning."

But there's an additional problem that seems to have finally tipped the scales for the college -- being a two-year institution in a state that doesn't have a state-supported community college system.

The national movement to support two-year institutions hasn't quite trickled down to the state yet, Millage said. South Dakota has four technical institutes that are state supported but are governed by their respective K-12 school districts, although there could be legislation presented next year to alter the governance structure and move those institutions under the South Dakota Board of Regents jurisdiction, he said.

Millage believes that at that point the state could see a shift of the technical institutes becoming more like comprehensive community colleges.

But by then, it'll be too late for Kilian.

"We've talked until we're blue in the face about taking advantage of resources that are already here and how Kilian can play a role in this type of movement," he said. "But the support just isn't there to do that. There's a push for workforce development and we see the challenges in trying to grow businesses with limited workforce capacity. We've certainly felt we've always played a role in that, but dollars will be invested in programs, at least in Sioux Falls, to the technical institutes and to those regents-governed universities."


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