Excitement palpable as ground broken for new SLCC campus _lowres

Monty Sullivan, President of Louisiana's Community and Technical Colleges.

Enthusiasts for Louisiana’s community colleges and technical programs say they’ll emerge from the COVID-19 era with robust resources and rebounding enrollments.

Monty Sullivan, president of the 12-institution, Louisiana Community & Technical College System, said Monday that post-pandemic Louisiana will place new and added emphasis on manufacturing and the system will offer students quality short-term programs that will open doors to jobs that pay well.

“The effects of the pandemic have been very difficult for a number of sectors,” he said: retail, restaurants and tourism among them. But, he said, manufacturing will accelerate its capital investments in Louisiana’s economy, and will need trained and eager workers to ensure success.

Sullivan’s comments came on the first day of Louisiana’s Community College Week. Campuses are hosting events and marketing programs for enrollment as the pandemic eases. Among the most attractive programs have been two-year programs in such areas as process technology and instrumentation, but also shorter programs that teach specific skills and continue to be in great demand.

“Unemployment is high and people believe there are no jobs,” Sullivan said. “But that’s not the case. There are very few jobs available to applicants with no skills. That’s why we don’t want to leave people in Louisiana without opportunities to gain skills.”

The system has continued to emphasize programs to train or retrain employees who are eager to join a more polished and skilled workforce. To that end, he said, the system is planning to introduce legislation in the upcoming session – it starts April 12 — that will help students meet their college expenses. The legislation will be shepherded by Senate Majority Leader Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, and will be named for former Gov. Mike Foster, who helped create Louisiana’s two-year system.

Enrollments at community colleges, which oftentimes serve vulnerable populations, were most affected by COVID-19, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Debbie Tabchouri, director of enrollment management at South Louisiana Community College, said SLCC experienced a 5 percent enrollment drop last fall and a 12 percent drop in the spring. She expects things to start to bounce back in the fall.

The biggest problem freshmen had in the fall was they didn’t experience a “true college experience” — without the camaraderie classmates and the convenience of in-class professors. “It’s hard enough to transition from high school to college, when you are usually able to walk around with people and ask questions,” she said.

But she said stimulus checks have helped students think about enrolling again and applications for the fall are up significantly. And, she said, the COVID-19 era has not been all bad for college recruiters.

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"The access we have been able to have because of virtual recruiting events has helped us reach more people,” she said. “We had relied on face-to-face recruiting. What we’ve found is we reach more applicants without that. It’s been a very interesting learning experience.”

This week’s SLCC events include a 3-4 p.m. Wednesday virtual session with the Admissions Department and 6-7 p.m. Internet Café, which Tabchouri likened to “speed dating” with academic programs. Students who participate can make a whirlwind tour of what the campus is offering for study paths with faculty readily available to explain their programs.

Pam Boersig, executive director of enrollment management and student affairs at SOWELA in Lake Charles, said her campus kicked off Community College Week last week with virtual events detailing admissions and financial aid. This week, she said, there will be campus tours, among other events.

She said despite drops in applications this year, SOWELA retained more than 83 percent of its students from fall semester, when Lake Charles survived two hurricanes, to spring semester. That was the highest retention number among all Louisiana two-year colleges.

She said SOWELA provided more than 1,000 hot spots for internet connections in the community, initiated virtual tutoring and lent laptops to students.

“We’ve tried to be responsible to the students,” she said. “In the fall, our students and employees went through a lot.”

Boersig and Darlene Hoffpauir of the marketing department said SOWELA sustained much damage from the hurricanes, but an aggressive build-back program should have most buildings ready for students by the fall.

Lafayette Mayor-President Josh Guillory will formally proclaim this week as Community College Week in Lafayette. In his proclamation, he noted that SLCC serves eight parishes and distributes $26 million in grants and scholarships to students.

It is, he said, “a beacon of hope and opportunity for a brighter future for citizens of Acadiana and is a critical gateway into higher education.”

Email Ken Stickney at kstickney@theadvocate.com.