Northwest Winemaking Schools in Flux

Some community colleges see dip in number of viticulture and enology students, while four-year programs remain steady

by Peter Mitham
college cellars
Students are hard at work at College Cellars, the teaching winery located on the campus of Walla Walla Community College.
Roseburg, Ore.—Viticulture and enology students are hitting the books for another term, but some colleges report seeing fewer students than in previous years.

While enrollment in V&E programs at four-year universities has remained stable during the past five years, some community colleges in the Northwest report that student numbers have dropped off since the recession.

“Our program is down in enrollment,” says Chris Lake, director of the Southern Oregon Wine Institute at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg.

An upswing in federal grants for students to return to college during the 2008-09 period boosted the college’s viticulture and enology program to 75 students in 2009-10, but this fall there are just 30 students registered.

“From 2008-10 we saw this big bubble coming in of all these students—first, dumped out of employment because of the tanking economy, then second, the federal government encouraged lots of people to go back to school,” Lake tells Wines & Vines. “Now it’s trended back.”

That trend reflects the broader national picture.

Statistics released by the U.S. Census Bureau last week indicate that college enrollment slipped from 20.4 million in October 2011 to 19.9 million in October 2012—a shift of 467,000 students nationwide.

Disparity between programs
Two-year colleges saw the most dramatic decline—enrollment dropped 5%, from 6.1 million students to 5.8 million students—while four-year institutions largely held their own at 14.1 million students, a decline of just 1%.

Accordingly, Oregon State University and Washington State University both claim steady and even increasing enrollment, while the hit to two-year college programs is evident at the Northwest Wine Studies Center at Chemeketa Community College in Eola, Ore.

The center’s enrollment peaked at 318 students in 2007-08 but it has stubbornly stuck below 200 students since 2009-10. This term’s enrollment is in the 125-student range, says Joel Keebler, Chemeketa’s newly appointed director of agricultural sciences. He expects total enrollment for the academic year to top 160 students.

Keebler, who came to Chemeketa from a position at Virginia Highlands Community College, points out that the picture isn’t straightforward.

Chemeketa introduced its two-year associate’s degree program in viticulture and winemaking in 1999; it launched the wine studies center at Eola in 2003. The expansion of the college’s course offerings during the past decade has buoyed enrollment through continuing education for previous students as well as seeing student enrollment spread over a larger number of classes.

“Our program certainly benefitted from what happened in ’08 and ’09, but we’ve been able to leverage that into a unique program that continues to attract good numbers of students,” Keebler says.

But students—as at Umpqua—are often looking to upgrade skills through a handful of courses rather than pursue a program through to graduation.

“A lot of times you’d really want to know how many people actually graduate, but in this program there are just so many non-traditional students that I don’t think it matters as much,” Keebler says.

It’s a similar scenario at Umpqua, where the graduation rate for associate of applied science (AAS) students is 25%, while 30% of students complete the school’s one-year viticulture certificate program.

Wine industry jobs
Umpqua students’ studies lead to more than 75% of them finding positions in the industry, Lake said, because they’re snapped up during the practicums required as part of the program. Crisp cash trumps a crisp diploma, and many don’t return to school till they’re ready to take the next step in their careers.

But if job opportunities are influencing enrollment in Oregon, numbers don’t seem to be affected in Washington state, where Yakima Valley Community College and Walla Walla Community College have seen no decrease in enrollment.

Yakima, which formally launched its viticulture and enology program in 2007, will have 20 to 25 students in its first-year class when courses begin Sept. 23—that’s up from 12 to 15 students six years ago.

“Based on the numbers I’m seeing right now, it looks like we’re continuing on that trend of steady or a slight increase,” says Trent Ball, agriculture program chair and viticulture and enology instructor at Yakima. “When the economy slowed, for our state, ag in general is hot. It’s one of the few sectors that was hiring. And just what I’ve experienced in talking with students, they’ve been choosing the discipline because of that. They see opportunity.”

Alan Busacca, director of the Center for Enology & Viticulture at Walla Walla Community College provides an even rosier picture.

“Our enrollment is as large as we’ve ever had,” he tells Wines & Vines. “Our target is to admit 30 new students to start each fall as a group, and upon occasion the actual number has been as low as 25 or so. This fall we have 34 students starting the program.”

While there’s no clear reason for the difference between colleges in Washington state and Oregon, Lake believes the relative size of the industries in each state and the kinds of wineries the colleges are serving may be a factor

“The Oregon wine industry seems to be comprised of mostly small, family-run wineries with small numbers of employees per established winery,” he says. “We’re pacing the employment need that’s here in a community of, maybe, 25 wineries. Students that are graduating from the program are finding the jobs that they want.”

Keeping pace
While federal funding has become more difficult for students to obtain, scholarships are available through the college for qualified students. More important, Lake feels the programs are keeping pace with the industry’s needs, even through enrollment has slipped.

“As the industry grows around here,” he says, “I suspect the enrollments will grow along with it.”

Posted on 09.12.2013 - 07:34:51 PST
I was enrolled in an enology program at a community college in Pennsylvania. It was offered almost entirely online. One of the major problems with the curriculum is that a student receives no practical experience in a winery or lab setting; it's all theory and textbooks.
Cait Condran

Posted on 09.12.2013 - 19:01:57 PST
A premier online grape and wine education programs is VESTA a partnership of universities and colleges across the nation designed to deliver a rigorous educational program leading to a technical certificate or AAS degree in enology, viticulture or wine business entrepreneurship. Extensive hands on field experiences are an essential part of the program allowing students to reinforce their online learning with real world experiences.
Michelle Norgren

Posted on 09.12.2013 - 10:03:55 PST
It's worth noting that College Cellars, the bonded winery at Walla Walla Community College's School of Viticulture & Enology, won a double gold with their 2012 Carmenère at the recent San Francisco Wine Awards, just one of a cascade of medals from national competitions. This student-run program, using grapes from student-maintained vineyards, is one big part of why enrollment is at an all-time high for this exceptional 2-year program.
Paul Gregutt