Enrollment numbers are up at Arapahoe Community College compared to the same time last year as the college readies for its fall semester set to begin Aug. 22.
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Monica Fuglei is as busy as she's ever been.
An instructor at Arapahoe Community College who also chairs the school's English department, Fuglei is currently "building classes like mad" as she gears up for the fall semester, set to begin Aug. 22.
"We're finding we're having to be a little more fluid and agile in terms of enrollment," Fuglei said. "It brings new pressures, but they're good pressures."
Increasing enrollment numbers at ACC are heralding the excitement felt by Fuglei, with data showing a roughly 5% increase in enrolled students in early August compared to the same time in 2021, a difference of about 250 students.
Numbers are still coming in almost every day and the percent increase is constantly changing, according to Lisa Matye Edwards — vice president of student affairs — who anticipates the final total will exceed the college's 2021 enrollment.
In 2021, ACC saw enrollment of 7,038 students, up from 6,594 in 2020 —a 6.7% increase — according to data from the Community College System.
The college was an outlier in the metro region last year, when most urban community colleges saw a dip in 2021 enrollment rates compared to 2020, with some as large as 14%.
“We’re really proud that ACC continues to be responsive and serve the community, and I think our enrollment numbers show that," Edwards said. "We’re both relieved and proud."
Joe Garcia, chancellor for the Colorado Community College System — which encompasses 13 colleges with 35 locations across the state — said he remains "guardedly optimistic" that overall enrollment rates will improve from last year.
"When you look at it nationally, we lost almost 1 million community college students nationwide (in 2021)," Garcia said.
Amid inflation, when "people are facing rising rents, gas prices and grocery prices, people need to work," Garcia said, leaves education to be seen as an unaffordable luxury for some.
"What we have to do is convince them that they can still take classes while working and while taking those classes they can better prepare themselves for the future," Garcia said.
With ACC appearing to be on pace for even higher enrollment this year, Edwards said the numbers are a testament to the college's ability to weather the pandemic — which has widely been labeled a culprit for most schools' enrollment drops — as well as meeting students' needs at a precarious economic moment.
While the demand for in-person learning has increased as students head towards the fall semester, online classes and services still remain popular, Edwards said. There has been a 5% increase in students signed up for online courses this semester compared to last fall.
ACC President Stephanie Fujii said the pandemic showed the college it could offer options for students in ways it hadn't tried before.
About 80% of ACC students attend classes part-time, with many working or raising families meaning online learning, as well as other resources such as advising, can be a key factor in allowing them to continue school.
“Students actually like virtual services,” Fujii said.
But ACC's reputation as an "earn and learn" environment, as Edwards called it, still grants students a unique and often advantageous in-person experience.
By offering programs that allow students to be hands-on in their field, such as working in a dealership through the college's automotive program, students can fast-track their way into the workforce at a time when employers are desperate for talent and jobs are abundant.
“In Colorado, there have been identified parts of the workforce where we need to grow our talent, such as healthcare, cybersecurity," Edwards said. “I’m excited about the upcoming year, I’m excited in the direction we’re going."
Such programs are able to "deliver real work opportunities that lead to a living wage," said Garcia, who hopes it will be a major seller to those looking to take advantage of increased wages amid a volatile economic landscape.
Still, challenges remain outside of just bringing in enough students, Garcia said, as the college system sees an exodus of staff and faculty looking for better pay.
"Some of our college's lost more than 20% of their workforce in one year," Garcia said, stressing a need for increased salaries and benefits for public education workers.
But even as obstacles lie ahead, the energy seems palpable for ACC as it approaches a new school year. Buoyed by promising enrollment and a continued return to normalcy as schools emerge from the disruption of COVID-19, Fuglei, the English instructor, said she is looking forward to "bustling hallways" and full classrooms.
"I remember a time on campus when it was hard to find a parking spot, and I hope we get back to that soon," Fuglei said.
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