VCC enrollment up again

by Tom Coombe -

For the second year in a row, enrollment has climbed significantly at Ely’s Vermilion Community College.
School officials report an student population increase of 6.9 percent, second highest among 40 state colleges and universities.
The jump comes on the heels of a 5.3 percent increase last fall, when Vermilion reported the highest enrollment increase of any state school, and brings full-time enrollment on campus to 574 students.
“This is a great place for us,” said VCC Provost Shawn Bina. “The important part for us is this is the second year in a row of sustained enrollment growth in a horrendous environment for enrollment as a whole. This is two years in a row where the state system has been down by just over two percent each year.”
Vermilion is one of just nine schools in the state system to show any growth at all this fall, and the nearly seven percent climb is second only to Pine Technical College.
Growth at VCC is due in large part to another large incoming freshman class.
The school welcomed 281 first-year students when classes began in August, compared to 251 last year and 216 in 2015.
“The exciting part for us is it gets us back to some of those bigger years (for freshman enrollment),” said Bina.
Bina, who has been VCC’s top on-campus administrator since 2010, attributed the growth to several factors, including ramped up recruiting for the school’s park ranger academy program and the launch of a veterinary technician program.
“This year you can easily paint a picture of two pieces,” said Bina. “One is the park ranger academy, which is only provided at seven colleges. We took a different approach to try and be more competitive nationally, to try and go after students from other parts of the country, and we are about 10 students bigger than usual.”
Meanwhile, the veterinary technician program has started with more students than anticipated.
“It’s so much more of an initial success than we planned for,” said Bina. “We thought if we got 12 new students, it would be fabulous, and we capped out at 24. And these are almost all students who wouldn’t be here if not for the vet tech program. We’re not robbing Peter to pay Paul.”
Bina said the ‘vet tech’ program also opened a new market from which VCC can draw students.
In the highly-competitive enrollment market, Vermilion has carved its own niche as a residential community college with a unique array of outdoors-related classes and degree programs.
About one-fifth of Vermilion’s students come from outside Minnesota and most of the school’s student population hails from beyond the Ely area.
More VCC students also live on campus this year, thanks to the completion of a $6.5 million student housing complex that resulted in 120 beds and an overall gain in student housing on-campus.
Bina said it’s hard to attribute enrollment growth to the new housing, but he and other school officials have maintained that improvements to the school’s on-campus housing stock is integral to maintaining and boosting student population.
“The new housing, in my opinion, helped,” said Bina. “I think there’s no question more up-to-date housing drew more students to living on campus, which we believe is of benefit to them.”
As of late-September, on-campus housing was filled beyond capacity at 104 percent.
A new trapshooting program, which may become a full-fledged varsity sport next year, has 40 participants and has been a factor in drawing students to Vermilion.
Bina said that the school is working to boost retention, which has been a focus the last several years.