The news that Robeson Community College has about 1,000 fewer students enrolled for the fall semester this school year than it did in the fall semester of 2012 could easily be misinterpreted as meaning the local economy is on the rebound and people are leaving the classroom for a paying job.
That would be a colossal misread. The decline in enrollment is bad news that promises to get worse.
Mark Kinlaw, vice president of Instruction, told the board of trustees on Monday night that there are 1,930 students currently enrolled at the community college, down from 2,450 in the fall of 2013 and just more than 2,900 in the fall of 2012. That represents a decrease of about 34 percent over a two-year period.
Kinlaw pointed out that the plunge is not unique to RCC, that community colleges across North Carolina and the United States are also losing students in large doses.
The problem is that it has become much harder for students to get financial aid, primarily the Pell Grant, which is federal money that pays for school for students who can demonstrate financial need and have not earned a bachelor’s degree.
In 2011, the Pell Grant program was cut by $5.7 billion, and the amount of aid available for the most needy students dropped from $5,550 to $4,705 a year. Additionally, about 1.7 million students who were eligible to receive smaller Pell Grants immediately became ineligible for the program.
In Robeson County, where education has not always been valued and students routinely leave school without a degree or a skill to earn a living, the Pell Grant program has been vital, rerouting in a positive direction plenty of young people in danger of falling into the welfare trap. For many of those, the Pell Grant option is no longer available.
Of similar consequence in Robeson County, the Pell Grant now has more restrictions. It only pays for 30 hours of remedial education — math, reading and English — that is vital to the success of so many students in this county, and students who are not making sufficient progress in their studies can be stripped of the Pell Grant. While we agree in principle with these stipulations, we are mindful of the effect locally they are already having.
The reason the news will get worse is that RCC receives state funding based on a formula that takes into account the number of enrolled students. This year, the college lost about $1.9 million in state funding and it is likely to face a similar reduction during the next fiscal year.
That could force cuts at the college that include personnel, raising the possibility of people who are homeowners and civic leaders having to leave to find work elsewhere. It’s a one-two punch to a county that is already staggered by a depressed local economy.