(UPDATED, 3:15 p.m. August 4, with added information from ISU regarding its fall enrollment.)
IDAHO FALLS — Recent Blackfoot High School graduate Kelcey Wright was supposed to attend Idaho State University last fall.
Program selected. Classes scheduled. Living quarters arranged.
But then things changed. Lured by lower tuition at the new College of Eastern Idaho in Idaho Falls, Wright, a then-prospective nursing student, canceled her classes at ISU.
She did the math and realized an associate degree in nursing at the state’s newest community college could save her thousands of dollars over two years.
Wright is one of hundreds of new students to enroll at CEI since its recent shift from a technical college to a community college. She’s also part of a growing number of students leaving ISU in recent years, contributing to what new university president Kevin Satterlee recently called a “financial crisis” at the institution.
Local students and educators say CEI’s lower tuition and new associate degree offerings are contributing to the school’s enrollment upsurge, though it’s currently unclear how much the fledgling community college is affecting ISU’s already diminished enrollment.
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Despite CEI’s enrollment increase in the wake of ISU’s decline, leaders at both institutions say the sprouting community college will eventually pay mutual dividends in the form of more students — and help Idaho move closer to its flagship education goal to see more high school graduates earn some form of a postsecondary certificate.
CEI’s enrollment upsurge follows ISU’s declines
As of July 17, 922 students had enrolled at CEI. Just 482 had enrolled by that time in 2017, according to the school’s spokesman Todd Wightman.
CEI is trending to have over 1,500 students for the fall semester, Wightman said. That’s more than double the roughly 700 students that attended the school under its technical-college banner in 2017.
Growth was expected to follow CEI’s changeover to a community college last year, and some leaders predict the school’s enrollment to increase by thousands more over the next five years.
Idaho’s population growth is accompanied by college enrollment that has defied a downward national trend in recent years. East Idaho’s private Brigham Young University-Idaho, in Rexburg, is a notable contributor.
Numbers released by the university in May show 2018 spring enrollment at 15,751 students, an increase of 5.5 percent from the year prior. The religious institution, owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, is a popular choice in Mormon-rich East Idaho.
“From what I can see, it looks like we will be continuing to grow this fall like we did last fall,” said BYU-Idaho spokesman Brett Crandall, who didn’t provide Idaho Ed News with preliminary fall enrollment numbers for this story.
ISU has experienced a different enrollment trend in recent years. It’s fall 2017 student headcount came in at 12,505, down more than 400 students from 2016. As a result, former ISU president Arthur Vailas predicted 2017-18 tuition and fee collections to fall $6.1 million short of projections.
It’s unclear how much the enrollment upsurge at CEI is affecting ISU’s already lagging enrollment numbers. The community college isn’t tracking the number of ISU transferees amid the influx of students, Wightman said.
Despite multiple requests, ISU spokesman Stuart Summers did not provide Idaho Ed News with any preliminary fall enrollment data. However, Summers said ISU “saw a more than 13 percent increase in undergraduate Idaho resident first-time students” last year. He expressed optimism moving forward.
“We feel strongly that the needle is moving in the right direction and key enrollment numbers are trending positively,” Summers said.
‘Cost is huge’
With fall enrollment numbers still in flux, some East Idaho students and educators say CEI’s added degree offerings and lower tuition are catching on with students at area high schools.
Currently, CEI’s full-time semester tuition is $1,202, or roughly one-third less than ISU’s $3,710. BYU-Idaho’s tuition isn’t so clear-cut, with full-time, single Latter-Day Saint students paying $2,009 per semester and non-LDS, full-time students paying $4,018.
The Blackfoot School District is located between CEI’s campus in Idaho Falls and ISU’s campus roughly 50 miles south in Pocatello. Though Blackfoot college-and-career advisor Angelee Dalley said many local students still prefer ISU’s university atmosphere over a community college, a growing number of students are opting for CEI’s lower tuition.
“Cost is huge,” said Dalley.
Blackfoot senior Grace Callister, whose older sister attends ISU, is one of those students. Despite her familial link to nearby ISU, Callister said CEI’s “way cheap” surgical technologist program enticed her to enroll at the community college.
“I already know that’s what I want to do,” Callister said.
Some of the community college’s incoming students are not recent high school graduates, CEI president Rick Aman recently told Idaho Ed News. Still, Aman believes CEI’s enrollment will trigger further declines in ISU’s incoming freshman enrollment. But he also believes ISU will reap the benefits of more sophomores and juniors continuing their education after CEI.
“I believe they will see that increase,” Aman said.
Aman pointed to the partnership between College of Western Idaho and Boise State University in the Treasure Valley as a hopeful precursor to ISU and CEI. Despite enrollment surges at CWI since its creation in 2007, the two institutions now nurse a partnership that finds recent community college students funneling into BSU each semester.
Wright said a bachelor’s degree at ISU is still an option once she finishes at CEI.
“I can always go back there and continue,” she said.
ISU combats enrollment declines
ISU president Kevin Satterlee, who took over as the university’s 13 president in June, expressed doubt in Aman’s prediction of a temporary drop in freshman enrollment.
“I don’t know that I agree with that,” Satterlee told Idaho Ed News, adding that tracking the university’s declines amid CEI’s growth “isn’t the issue” anyway.
What is important, Satterlee said, is establishing a relationship that ensures both institutions are meeting students’ needs.
“We will all be better off with CEI in place,” Satterlee said. “A synergistic relationship is good for both of us. The longterm benefit is the really key.”
Assistant vice president of academic affairs Cindy Hill stressed the university’s beefed-up emphasis on attracting and enrolling new students.
Part of a larger, state-funded plan to help smooth the transition between high school and college, ISU’s Bengal Bridge program allows new freshman to enroll in up to 10 credits of summer courses for a highly discounted $65.00 per credit.
The program’s smaller classes, specialized tutoring and supplemental instruction also help with the transition, said Hill.
According to Hill, the program is working as planned, growing from 116 two years ago to 221 this year.
Blackfoot High School graduate and prospective business student Cody Herrera, who said he was aware of CEI before recently graduating, touted the program’s tuition discount and added transitional help.
“It’s gotten me ahead,” Herrera said, adding that his older brother, also an ISU student, contributed to his decision to enroll at the university.
Like Satterlee, Hill disagreed that CEI’s enrollment spike will contribute to even a temporary drop in ISU’s freshman enrollment. She also stressed the prospect of working with a new higher education institute in East Idaho to ultimately reach more students.
“More people will be educated because of CEI,” Hill said. “It’s wonderful.”