Sowela reports record spring enrollment

By By Frank DiCesare / American Press

For the second straight semester Sowela Technical Community College has received a record number of students enrolling in programs.

More than 3,200 students enrolled for spring classes, a 20 percent spike from last year’s numbers, making it the highest spring enrollment in school history, said Neil Aspinwall, Sowela’s chancellor.

“We were hoping we would break 3,000 this spring; it would be our first time,” he said. “I do believe that the large industrial expansion is still driving this enrollment increase. The students and the general public realize where the jobs are, so they are coming to Sowela to get trained so they will be eligible to take advantage of those jobs.” 

Aspinwall said Sowela’s image change and the new buildings and facilities under construction on campus are also driving the school’s increasing enrollment. He said Sowela is also benefitting from the buzz in the community about the school’s commitment to workforce development.

Sowela’s spring numbers come on the heels of its record-breaking fall 2013 semester when the school experienced a 22 percent spike in its enrollment, the highest ever in its history. As in the fall, the most popular programs this spring were process technology, industrial instrumentation, general studies and the school’s dual-enrollment program for high school students. Aspinwall said the 709 high school students who signed up for Sowela’s dual-enrollment program this spring was the highest in school history. 

“That’s an area of students now who are learning that you can go to Sowela, earn that credit, and transfer them to us,” Aspinwall said. “That’s a population that is growing. They want those jobs, too.”

An additional 63 high school students this spring enrolled in the Senior Technical Education Program at Sowela, Aspinwall said. STEPS is for high school seniors who spend their senior year in Sowela’s technical program courses.

Enrollment in many of Sowela’s industry-related programs, including welding, pipefitting and millwright, remain comparatively low. Aspinwall said these programs are relatively new at Sowela and will require time to take root before their numbers begin to spike.

Tuition at Sowela is between $1,600 and $1,700 a semester for 12 credit hours. All credits students take beyond 12 hours are free, Aspinwall said.

Paula Hellums, Sowela’s interim vice chancellor of academic affairs, said the school’s strong ties to industry are also driving the enrollment. She said Sowela officials listen to industry leaders and respond quickly to their needs. 

“I think we’re not only offering the right courses and programs that students are interested in, but we’re offering the right programs in which students can find employment once they graduate from Sowela,” Hellums said.

Aspinwall said college enrollment numbers are traditionally lower in the spring because some students either transfer to another school or drop out. Most of Sowela’s students, he said, work and are married with families. They are students with commitments outside of school.

“They are not the typical 18- or 19-year-old freshman,” Aspinwall said. “The average age of our students is between 25 and 26 years old. Sometimes life gets in the way.”

Aspinwall said Sowela is on track to having 5,000 students on campus by 2016. He said eventually the school’s enrollment numbers will taper off. But, in the meantime, he said, he is amazed at the numbers.

“I think Sowela’s image has drastically changed,” he said. “When I first came here almost two years ago, I started to use the phrase ‘This is not your granddaddy’s old trade school anymore.’ And it’s not. “I think with the expansion, the accreditation and the image change at Sowela, I think we’ll continue to grow.”