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Good first steps at PDCCC

Just a couple of weeks after former Paul D. Camp Community College President Paul Conco was removed from his post, the problems facing the college are becoming clear, though the solutions will take more time to resolve themselves.

The biggest of those problems — and the one that would seem to be at the root of many others — is declining enrollment.

Last year, 1,259 students represented the lowest fall headcount the college had experienced in at least 22 years.

To be sure, other Virginia community colleges also have experienced declining enrollment. Nearby Tidewater Community College, for instance, is educating 14-percent fewer students today than it was in 2011, according to statistics from the State Council for Higher Education for Virginia. But PDCCC’s enrollment fell by 10 percentage points more during the same period. Statewide percentages have been somewhat better. Taken as a whole, Virginia’s community colleges have lost “only” 7 percent of their students since 2011.

Some of Paul D. Camp’s enrollment problems can be attributed to an artificial spike in students that occurred following the closure of International Paper in 2010, an event that put about 1,100 people out of work and resulted in many of those uprooted workers returning to school to learn new skills.

But as those folks have moved out of the school and into new careers, PDCCC has clearly been unable to fill the empty desks at its campuses in Franklin, Suffolk and Smithfield.

To address the problem, which exacerbates structural and financial difficulties for the rural community college, Glenn DuBois, chancellor of the Virginia Community College System, removed Conco from office less than three months before his scheduled retirement and replaced him with an interim college president, Dr. William C. Aiken, taking the unusual step of issuing a scathingly blunt press release describing the problems Conco was leaving behind.

Aiken has wasted little time addressing the root problem of enrollment. His plans include maximizing the college’s exposure within the area’s secondary school systems, launching new programs aimed at providing support for 21st-century skillsets like robotics, increasing marketing efforts, hiring a full-time recruiter and encouraging all college faculty members to find a couple of students each whom they can mentor in an effort to encourage higher program completion rates. A “marketing enrollment management team” meets every two weeks to discuss other options and ideas.

These are all good steps and — though they might not solve the problem entirely — they should help create a positive inflection point in the enrollment curve for Paul D. Camp. The statewide statistics reveal fundamental problems within the community college system that will have to be addressed from Richmond. Perhaps the effort at PDCCC can one day serve as a model for how to address declining numbers of students at community colleges around the commonwealth.