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January 13, 2014 In Brief

Online education gains steam, as traditional college enrollment declines

photo | HBJ File William H.W. “Bill’’ Crawford IV, CEO, Rockville Bank

The state's higher education industry got some sobering news recently with the announcement that college enrollment in Connecticut declined for the first time in more than a decade.

Statewide college enrollment last fall slipped by 897 students, or 0.4 percent to 202,095. It was the first enrollment decline in Connecticut since 2001, according to the state Office of Higher Education.

Officials blame the enrollment drop-off on fewer part-time students attending in-state colleges, which largely impacted the state's public universities — Central, Southern, Western, and Eastern.

Despite the overall enrollment decline, however, there is another interesting trend taking hold in Connecticut — the growing popularity of online education.

Post University, which has a campus in Waterbury, but is best known for its online course offerings, was the only Connecticut college to record double-digit enrollment growth last fall. Its student population increased 10.5 percent to 8,082 students. Nearly all that growth was the result of new, part-time students in online programs, Office of Higher Education data shows.

Fairfield's Sacred Heart University had the next highest enrollment growth rate of 8.5 percent.

The numbers indicate that there is intense demand for online education in Connecticut, a trend that some state officials are beginning to recognize and react to. As part of his vision to remake the state's higher education system, Gregory Gray, president of the Board of Regents for Higher Education, has talked about requiring students to take at least a few online courses. He also wants to significantly increase enrollment of Charter Oak State College, the state university system's online college, which currently has about 1,600 students. — Greg Bordonaro

All eyes on Rockville Bank’s Crawford

Rockville Bank's pending cross-state merger with United Bank of West Springfield has thrust the merged banks' current and future CEO William H.W. “Bill'' Crawford IV into the national spotlight.

The august American Banker, the media bible of the U.S. financial sector, recently cast Crawford among five community bankers from across the country as ones to watch in 2014.

American Banker last Dec. 30 quoted Sterne Agee & Leach Inc. analyst Matt Breese describing Crawford, who has helmed the Vernon lender since May 2011 after career stops at Wells Fargo Bank and former Wachovia Bank, as “a relatively unknown player in the Northeast community banking landscape just three years ago. Now he's leading one of the largest and most interesting franchises in the region.”

Sterne Agee is United's adviser on the $369 million all-stock merger to create a combined $5 billion-asset lender, based in Glastonbury. If regulators approve, the merger could come by summer.

Others on American Banker's community-bankers-to-watch list: Deborah Wright, Carver Bancorp in New York; Kessel Stelling, Synovus in Georgia; Steven Sugarman, Banc of California; and John Taylor, Porter Bancorp in Kentucky.

Asked whether the American Banker spotlight puts even more pressure on him to succeed with his “merger of equals,'' Crawford beamed and said the burden won't be any more than he already feels to satisfy the needs of his customers and stockholders. — Gregory Seay

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