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College Enrollment Down In Florida, But That's Not The Whole Story

Aerial view of the Eckerd College campus.
Aerial view of the Eckerd College campus. The St. Petersburg private liberal arts school saw a 13 percent drop in student population from 2013 to 2018, but the figures may be misleading. COURTESY ECKERD COLLEGE

According to U.S. Department of Education figures, enrollment at some Florida colleges and universities has decreased in the past five years.

But sometimes those numbers don’t show the full story.

“When you have more schools trying to grow, and fewer students or similar numbers of students (enrolling), it's just not mathematically possible for everybody to get the number of students they're wishing to enroll each year,” said John Sullivan, Vice President of Enrollment at Eckerd College.

Department of Education statistics cited by the Tampa Bay Business Journal show the private liberal arts school in St. Petersburg experienced a 13 percent drop in student population between 2013 and 2018.

But Sullivan says the figures don't tell the true story - enrollment and retention of full-time students was actually up over that time.

The drop reflects the termination of the school’s Pell Program, said Sullivan. The program was aimed at experienced adult learners and had already been seeing decreased interest.

“What we saw was that more and more adult programs were going to an online format,” said Sullivan. “We really believed in the personal experience and so that wasn't the format that we were going to pursue.”

Still, total enrollment rates in Florida and across the nation are down.

At the start of the 2019 spring semester, the Student Clearing House Research Center reported there were 48,000 fewer college students in Florida compared to a year earlier - the largest drop of any state - and 300,000 fewer nationwide. 

The center also found that while enrollment at private four-year institutions went up over the same period of time, fewer students are choosing to attend public two- and four-year institutions.  

“I think for a lot of students, they're looking for community. They're looking for a place that they can call their own and, for some of them, their second home,” said Sullivan. 

Looking over the Department of Education figures from 2013 to 2018, St. Petersburg College was the only other Tampa Bay area school that saw a decrease - down nine percent. The University of Tampa experienced a 29 percent increase, while the University of South Florida system grew by six percent.

Delaney Brown is a radio news intern for the fall of 2019.
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