There’s a unique phenomena that occurs when the economy spins downward. Small, two-year colleges that often offer vocational training have a surge in enrollment. When the workforce shrinks, those without jobs seek new skills, and other career paths, according to economists.
The challenge for these institutions is to keep student rosters full once the economy ticks upward. Black River Technical College in Pocahontas is no exception, BRTC President Eric Turner told Talk Business & Politics. During the last several years, enrollment numbers at the school, one of the largest community colleges in the state, have been in decline.
“It creates a challenge for us that’s for sure,” Turner said. “We are optimistic about our numbers this fall, but we won’t know for sure until after classes start.”
BRTC was founded as a vocational and technical school in 1972. The school offers 27 certificate programs, and 16 associate degree programs. It has 308,000-square-feet of classroom, and other usable, indoor space, and has 23 buildings that sit on 100 acres. The college also operates a satellite campus in Paragould.
According to stateuniversity.com, BRTC had the 18th highest enrollment among all colleges in Arkansas, with a roster of 2,248 students in 2015. That was a drop of 6.4% since 2014, according to numbers released. BRTC officials knew that an improving economy would shrink student numbers, and the institution began taking proactive steps several years ago to maintain their numbers.
One major step the college took was to construct a new nursing and science building. BRTC received a $9.5 million grant from the USDA Office of Rural Development in 2013 to build the 44,000-square-foot nursing and science building. It was opened in 2015, and allowed the college to expand all of its nursing programs, Turner said.
Healthcare workers will be a vital necessity in the coming decades as Baby Boomers retire, and there are projected shortages in that industry. Workers with healthcare certificates and degrees will be able to command premium salaries in the future, he added.
Another campus improvement, the relocation of the BRTC fire tower, is nearing completion. The college has operated a fire training tower at the Walnut Ridge Airport for years, but the school decided it needed the training tool closer to home. School officials wanted to incorporate a more systematic approach when training firefighters, paramedics, and other first responders who attend the college. They wanted the fire tower on the campus so that each of these entities could work together in the same fashion they’ll work together in real-life scenarios, Turner said.
BRTC typically has 15 to 20 firefighter students on campus each semester, but the college provides onsite fire training to many fire departments in the region, he said. The fire tower relocation cost about $900,000. It’s scheduled to be completed in September.
Attracting and retaining students comes down to several core objectives, Turner said. Those who seek a traditional four year degree can get their first two years at BRTC, and the cost will almost certainly be lower. Plus, the classroom sizes are smaller, and students can get more one-on-one time with their instructors, he said.
The other component of the college, and an extremely valuable one, is the vocational classes that are offered. In a changing jobs market where mechanics, welders, and others with those types of skill sets are becoming increasingly valuable, BRTC offers these certifications in abundance, Turner said.
“Vocational training is where we got our start. It’s our heritage. It’s who we are,” he said.