Horry-Georgetown Technical College’s student body shrank by 3.4 percent over the last year, continuing what college officials say has become a nationwide trend among two-year institutions.
HGTC enrollment declined for the second straight year, tapering off from a recession-induced surge that saw hundreds of unemployed people retrained for new careers.
“Three years ago people couldn’t get a job, so they were all coming back to school,” said HGTC Commissioner Ken Richardson. “Now they’re not coming to school because they’re getting jobs.”
Between 2009 and 2010, the college’s enrollment grew by nearly 600 students to 7,779, according to HGTC records. That has steadily dropped to 7,412 this fall.
Despite the decline, college officials aren’t greatly concerned about the trend and insist other metrics are more important.
“Headcount is a number,” said college President Neyle Wilson. “The one that really counts is the credit hours students are taking because they’re paying for them. So credit hours equates to money.”
When credit hours are considered, the decline is about 1.6 percent, Wilson said. He added that the college’s budget isn’t in trouble.
“We’re OK,” he said. “We’re not really off.”
Officials pointed out that HGTC’s situation isn’t unique, either. Nationally, community college enrollment dropped 10 percent between 2012 and 2013, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Across the state, the average enrollment decline at technical colleges is 2.85 percent, HGTC’s records show. The steepest drop off occurred at Aiken Tech, which is down 8.9 percent, while Piedmont Tech fell 8.1 percent and Spartanburg Communnity College dipped 6.2 percent.
A few schools have seen increases — Florence-Darlington Tech is up 3 percent — but HGTC officials say some of those gains are artificially inflated.
Florence-Darlington Tech, for example, has been downsizing for years, said Harold Hawley, HGTC’s chief financial officer.
Hawley attributed Horry-Georgetown’s enrollment trend to several factors, including fewer people moving to the area, tightening federal restrictions on financial aid and an improving economy.
“We’ve done our mission,” he said. “We’ve got them back to work.”
But that doesn’t mean college officials aren’t looking for ways to attract more students.
Hawley said HGTC frequently evaluates which programs are popular and which ones aren’t attracting enough students to make them financially feasible. Recently, HGTC’s advertising has targeted students who want to earn enough credits to transfer to a four-year institution.
“We look at program cost analysis,” Hawley said. “We look at each program like it was a product line: Saturn, GM, Toyota, etc. ... We don’t want to grow a program that’s bleeding cash then, either. We also don’t want to grow programs that we have a three-year backlog in.”
College officials are also adding programs to meet the demands of the labor market. That’s why HGTC is planning to build a center for advanced manufacturing training.
“This is a system-wide issue,” said Marilyn Fore, HGTC’s senior vice president. “We’re tackling [this] to see what it is that we need to do better to recruit students who need us but don’t know that they need us.”
If Derrick Stephens gets his way, the 31-year-old will contribute to the smaller student body at Horry-Georgetown.
The Marine Corps veteran plans to graduate in January and hopes to land a job as a construction project manager.
“When I came, there wasn’t many jobs in Horry County,” said Stephens, who spent 10 years in the military before moving to the Myrtle Beach area to live near family.
When he arrived, Stephens found his employment options limited to the tourism industry, particularly restaurants. He wanted to work with his hands, so he signed up at HGTC last year on a hunch that the building market would continue recovering.
“That was my prediction,” he said. “I said, ‘If I get in there, then when it flips around they’ll want more people qualified and trained to go into these areas.’”