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Lack of learners

As UNBC and CNC continue to struggle to meet their annual budgets, even after passing on an annual two per cent tuition increase to students, the lack of dollars aren't the numbers they should be afraid of.

As UNBC and CNC continue to struggle to meet their annual budgets, even after passing on an annual two per cent tuition increase to students, the lack of dollars aren't the numbers they should be afraid of.

What should really strike fear into senior administration at the Prince George-based university and college is the lack of students.

In the 2012-13 school year, there were 4,152 students enrolled at all UNBC campuses, down slightly from 4,226 in 2011-12, 4,266 in 2010-11 and 4,183 in 2009-10. About 3,000 of those students are full time. Just under 90 per cent of UNBC students attend the main campus in Prince George.

Enrolment numbers are sliding at the Prince George campus of CNC even faster. There were 2,208 full and part-time students at CNC in the fall of 2012, down 10.7 per cent from the 2,473 students enrolled in the fall of 2010.

The root of the problem UNBC and CNC are having recruiting and retaining students starts with the elementary and secondary school population. In the 2000-2001 school year, there were 18,147 students in School District 57. Since then, trustees have closed more than two dozen schools due to declining enrolment. In September of last year, a head count found there were just 12,920 students in School District 57.

Simply put, the source population of local students who would graduate to post-secondary education at their local college or university has dwindled and is showing no signs of improving. In fact, it's probably going to get worse before it gets better.

The 2011 census found there were 6,090 15 to 19-year-old residents of Prince George but only 5,195 10 to 14-year-olds behind them. That's 900 fewer kids or more than the entire population of D.P. Todd secondary. Unless those numbers change quickly, school trustees will be closing a Prince George high school in the next five years and it won't be the brand-new Duchess Park.

The numbers get even worse. The 2011 census found just 4,770 five to nine-year-olds in Prince George, more than eight per cent fewer kids who were 10 to 14 and nearly 22 per cent fewer kids who were 15 to 19-year-old kids.

The number of children four and under bounces back up to 5,060 in the 2011 census, but it only confirms that the bubble of nearly 6,100 kids aged 15 to 19 is aging out of secondary school and there are significantly fewer kids coming up to fill local elementary and secondary schools. The real-world ramifications are already happening, as CNC considers closing its campus daycare this spring.

Once that 15-19 age-group bubble bursts in the next five years or so, UNBC and CNC could be in a world of trouble without a rapid growth in the Prince George population, particularly of residents in their teens and 20s. The gradual enrolment decline being seen now will turn into a major decrease in the number of students by as early as 2020.

When that happens, the provincial government will slash their funding, leaving the governing boards at UNBC and CNC with no choice but to offer buyouts to the numerous faculty and staff, who will be in their 50s and early 60s. Once that's done, they'll start dumping the least-popular programs.

Depressed yet?

But wait, there's one more twist of the knife.

The kids currently 10 and under who will be graduating high school in the 2020s will find fewer classes and programs to choose from at CNC and UNBC, meaning more of them will have to leave Prince George for advanced education and career training.

It's going to take more than two per cent annual tuition increases to solve the problem. In fact, that's the worst thing the schools could be doing right now. Instead, they should be cutting fringe programs now, specializing in their core degree and diploma offerings and freezing tuition rates for years to come, to make themselves increasingly attractive when compared to other schools in the province and Western Canada.

Cheap tuition and affordable living will do more to attract out-of-region post-secondary students to Prince George than glossy brochures, slick websites and good intentions. CNC and UNBC need to act now to address the demographic disaster on the horizon or they'll be closing more than daycares in the years ahead.