Less than two months into its first fall semester, Austin Community College’s San Gabriel campus had 893 students, according to ACC data.
After beginning construction in 2016 the community college district’s newest campus opened in Leander in May and welcomed its first students during the fall semester. The San Gabriel campus—located in the city’s transit-oriented development district, or TOD—was funded by 2014 voter-approved bonds totaling $60 million.
“The campus is intended to help expand educational services to this part of the district and help relieve overcrowding at other campuses,” ACC spokesperson Jessica Vess said.
Neil Vickers, ACC executive vice president of finance and administration, said both the Cypress Creek campus in Cedar Park and the Northridge campus in Austin are overcrowded. Some course offerings were relocated from those campuses to San Gabriel to provide relief, he said.
“What we’ve seen this first semester is Cypress Creek credit hours are down almost 10 percent,” Vickers said.
The Cypress Creek campus, located around 9 miles from the new school, is currently operating at nearly double its capacity. This fall there are 4,109 students at the Cedar Park location while the capacity is approximately 2,200 students, according to ACC. The San Gabriel campus has around the same student capacity.
For Mitch Fuller—a business development consultant and former Cedar Park City Council member—the fact that the Leander location opened at less than half capacity raises concerns.
He said it was the understanding of members of the community that the campus was expected to open with close to 2,000 students. He mentioned how ACC’s decision to build new campuses, resulting in debt, is one of the reasons the district’s tax rate increased this year.
ACC’s fall enrollment peaked at 45,100 students in 2011 and fell to 40,799 students this fall, according to data from the district. During that time three campuses opened, and the Pinnacle campus in Austin closed for renovations.
“This assumption that we’ve got to build more campuses and make this commitment—you’re basically slicing the same piece of pie over and over and over again,” Fuller said. “In a time when enrollment’s declining [ACC] build[s]a new campus.”
Vickers said fall 2011 was a high point for enrollment in community colleges across the nation because of the economic recession, which prompted many people to attend school.
“If you actually took a much longer-term look, the college’s growth trend is still upwards over the long term, and that is the basis by which we said we needed to expand our campuses,” Vickers said. “So some of this building is building just to kind of catch up, to be honest.”
Vickers said if a campus opens at full capacity, it would indicate a planning problem because the campus would quickly become over-capacity. Expansions on the San Gabriel campus will be driven by enrollment numbers to meet demand in upcoming years, he said.
At the present the campus provides traditional classrooms, science labs, a multipurpose room, a library and other facilities, according to ACC documents. San Gabriel’s ACCelerator lab serves as a technology-enhanced learning environment for students and offers computer stations.
The campus provides courses for students looking to earn an associate degree, learn technical training or transfer to a university, according to ACC’s website.
Lesley Hall, a freshman at the San Gabriel campus studying nursing, said friends at bigger universities have trouble connecting with their professors.
“I like the small classes,” Hall said. “This campus is really … nice.”
Former ACC board chairman Vic Villarreal said that he worked for over 13 years to secure the campus for Leander. He said he thinks the campus is doing an “outstanding job” of serving its students and community and meeting goals.
“My fear was that no one would enroll, and the campus would be a complete disaster,” Villarreal said. “Well, that didn’t happen. Instead, enrollment was as-expected and will increase over time.”