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By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
    A slow, but steady post-recession decline in student population has community colleges around Illinois exploring avenues to rebuild headcount.
    An improving economy, it appears, is putting workers back in the job market — and taking them away from school campuses, causing administrators to rethink their program offerings.
    Statewide, enrollment is way down from the 372,566 fall enrollment of 2011 when America began climbing out of its economic malaise. As of Fall 2015, that number stood at 317,192, a decline of 55,374 or 14.8 percent over four years, according to the Illinois Community College Board.
    In the current fall enrollment, only 12 of 39 community college systems in Illinois gained students. Lewis and Clark Community College, based in Godfrey, was one of the 12.
    “We are 0.9 percent up compared to last fall,” said Kent Scheffel, vice president of enrollment services at LCCC. “In Illinois, the state average was a 5.6 percent drop, so we feel real good about a 0.9 percent (increase),” he said.
    LCCC’s fall enrollment is 7,971, some 68 more students than last fall.
    The region’s other community college, Southwestern Illinois College, based in Belleville, lost 22.2 percent of its student headcount since Fall 2011 — from 12,779 to the current 9,943. The decline in the past year was 5.7 percent.
    SWIC declined to comment for this story, but colleges in general have been addressing the same situation.
    “The economy has made a difference,” Scheffel said. “We’ve seen a drop in the number of 25- to 49-year-old students, and we attribute that to individuals who are finding jobs. That’s not good for us, but it’s still good news. It’s a plus for the region. We’re happy to see them go back to work, and it just means we have to work a little harder on our end to keep our numbers up.”
    Lewis and Clark is actively looking into new programs to tap into change. One is to establish a maritime institute, which would train such professions as barge pilots and deckhands.
    “There are going to be a lot of retirements in the barge industry, and we were approached about creating a program. We are in an ideal location for it obviously,” Scheffel said.
    The board has already approved the idea, but the program is still some time from being established.
    “We’d still have to buy equipment and that sort of thing and still go through the necessary steps with the Illinois Community College Board,” Scheffel said.
    LCCC in some ways is still riding a crest its enjoyed for two decades. Its student headcount has gone up in 19 of the last 20 years, with last year being the one exception — a large exception — when it declined 617 students. The headcount since Fall 2011 is down by 5.7 percent (8,451 to the current 7,971).
    In Illinois, only one community college system has more students today than it had in 2011 — that being the College of DuPage. However, it lost students this fall, down 2.2 percent year over year.
    In a survey conducted as part of the recent fall enrollment count by the Illinois Community College Board, most colleges attributed the decline to the workforce trend.
    Lewis and Clark has managed to keep pace by implementing several programs, including the new 5,000-square-foot St. Louis Confluence Fab Lab opened this November at the Historic N.O. Nelson Complex in Edwardsville. There, students are offered 3D printing, CNC, metalworking, welding, wood/plastic working, clean manufacturing, design, finishing and electronics.
    “It’s modeled after the fabrication labs offered by (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). In fact, there was an MIT representative who provided comments at the grand opening,” Scheffel said. “Somebody who has an idea for an invention can put the whole idea into place and develop a prototype.”

    At LCCC, the students who have left, at least in the 25-49 demographic, are spread out in terms of curriculum. Some were business students trying to pick up additional classes, such as accounting or management, because it helps them in their jobs, Scheffel said.
    While some programs have seen declines, the numbers have not been sufficient enough to warrant ending the programs involved, Scheffel said.
    Meanwhile, other new offerings are striking an increasing chord with students.
    “We continue to see very strong enrollments in our process operations program. That’s training for the refinery industry, but we’ve also seen some of those graduates go into other careers as well. Some are going into chemical fields or other fields. It has a broad draw, really,” he said. A number of the process operations students program have four-year degrees but are looking for better paying industries, like  refining.
    Among programs enjoying strong numbers are nursing, welding, criminal justice and trucking.
    “We started a welding program a few years ago and the demand for welders has been fantastic from our end,” Scheffel said. “Our welding coordinator spoke at a (recent) board meeting and said every graduate he’s had who wants to work is working.”
    Lewis and Clark “is trying to be as entrepreneurial as we can,” he said. “We realize as the markets open up and have the need for new employees we need to be ready to step into that. We’re trying to stay abreast of the changes as much as we can must so we can have students prepared to fill voids as they occur.”
    Trucking is one of those fields. A program begun with a grant now allows LCCC to train commercial drivers at its Bethalto satellite campus. Two trucks are now being used and recent additions of two tandem trailers (by Con-way Freight) and a car transport trailer (Cassens) open new training possibilities. The courses attract about eight drivers per class, and the courses are eight or 16 weeks in length.