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Enrollment at Salt Lake Community College in Salt Lake City, Utah, has rocketed by 12.5 percent in the past year, to more than 23,500.
By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 3/9/2009 11:47:47 AM ET 2009-03-09T15:47:47

When Deneece Huftalin looks out from her office, she sees signs that would be encouraging in normal economic times.

“There’s more parked cars in the parking lot,” said Huftalin, the vice president for student services at Salt Lake Community College in Salt Lake City, Utah. “There’s more lines in our advising office.”

The school’s enrollment hit 23,252 this term, up by 12.5 percent in just a year, mirroring gains at every other institution in the Utah community college system. But the boom isn’t necessarily good news, officials said: The state’s community colleges, like similar institutions across the country, have been swamped with more applications than they know what to do with.

Almost 1,200 community colleges serve more than 10 million students across the country, according to the American Association of Community Colleges, and they are at the uneasy intersection of two trend lines as the economic recession enters its 15th month.

Tough times are fueling eagerness among workers who have lost their jobs to upgrade their skills and résumés. At the same time, the recession is forcing traditional four-year colleges and universities to cut enrollments and sharply raise tuition, freezing out many would-be students who are themselves feeling the pinch of the recession.

That has the less-expensive community colleges struggling to absorb the load at a time when their own budgets are being hacked.

The economy “definitely hurts,” Huftalin said. Students are “feeling the pain in terms of the budget cuts and increased enrollments.”

‘A lot of people ... have been shut out’
The situation is similarly difficult for many other community colleges across the country: Demand for their classes is at a record high, rising by an average of 10 percent over the past year, the community college association said, but the funding isn’t there to meet it.

Community colleges are supposed to be open access — accepting all comers — but the association said that tens of thousands of students have been turned away and that hundreds of thousands more will likely shut out in the future.

In California, the San Diego Community College District alone estimated that the state’s funding crisis had forced it to deny admission to more than 7,000 students. At the same time, state community college administrators are reviewing a plan to cut up to 5 percent of the system’s classes, even as enrollment in the state’s 110 two-year institutions has grown by 10 percent in the past year.

“We are definitely feeling the pinch,” said Sunny Cooke, president of Grossmont College in El Cajon, where enrollment is at a record high. “We have a lot of people who have been shut out of the state’s university system, as well as people who have lost their job.”

At Allen Hancock College in Santa Maria, Calif., enrollment has grown by 11.3 percent in the past year, making class registration a full-contact sport, said José M. Ortiz, the college’s president.

“We have a lot of pressure, but we don’t have funding,” Ortiz said. “Right now, our strategy has been to tell students to come early, register as soon as possible so they can get the classes that they need.”

Pikes Peak Community College in Colorado Springs, Colo., has been under a hiring and travel freeze since October, and administrators have slashed the professional development budget.

President Tony Kinkel said the college was in a “horrible paradox,” because enrollment is up by 16 percent over a year ago and demand is rising, but the state is reducing funding.

At Piedmont Virginia Community College in Charlottesville, Va., meanwhile, the budget was cut by 15 percent this year, even though enrollment has risen by 17 percent since 2006.

“These budget cuts are occurring at what is, for us, the worst possible time,” said Frank Friedman, the college’s president. “We are trying not to raise class sizes. We are trying not to curtail class offerings. It is becoming more and more difficult.”

Desperate workers seek alternatives
One group fueling the growing demand on community colleges is midcareer workers who have lost their jobs — or fear that they will soon.

Dorothy Hill is in her third semester at Tri-County Technical College in Pendleton, S.C., where enrollment has surged nearly 13 percent in the past year.

“Unemployment is terrible in South Carolina,” said Hill, who was referred to the college by the state unemployment office after she lost her plant job. “A lot of people are going back to school so when they finish, they can get better jobs.”

Eric Johnson, who is studying information technology at West Virginia Junior College in Morgantown, said he also decided on a community college after losing his job selling subprime mortgages.

“Being a 31-year-old-man with a family, it was a quicker turnaround time,” Johnson said. “I could get into the workforce quicker than if I were to go for a four-year bachelor’s degree.”

Such stories are commonplace, said Jack Kempt, senior director of admissions at Brown Mackie College in South Bend, Ind., where enrollment has grown about 25 percent in just over a year.

“I talk to students constantly, and the thing I hear is, ‘I’ve been laid off’ or ‘I think I’m going to be laid off and I’m looking for something more stable,’” he said.

Georgia schools on chopping block
Perhaps no state has been hit harder than Georgia, which is considering what officials acknowledge are extreme measures to close a $2.2 billion budget deficit.

Among them is a proposal to eliminate the state’s eight community colleges, essentially merging them into the technical college system. If that happens, they would be subsumed into a system that itself is contracting rapidly: 13 of the state’s technical colleges are scheduled to merge into six in July.

The proposal is under study by a working group appointed by Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue, members of which have tried to reassure Georgians that students would be able to transfer among institutions easily. But students and educators say the proposal, if enacted, would be a body blow to poor students and students in rural communities.

“A lot of people would probably be scared to leave home to go to a university, whereas here, you may drive 30 minutes to an hour, but you’re still at home,” said Denise Mosley, a sophomore at East Georgia College in Swainsboro.

Glenn Stracher, a professor of geology and physics at East Georgia College, said such cuts would debilitate scores of programs across Georgia.

“Some of the programs offered in two-year colleges might be cut, and that means there a whole bunch of students that would be denied the opportunity to pursue a particular career interest or program of study at a two-year school,” he said.

“In rural communities, that may mean that students take a look at the technical college and say, ‘Well, that school doesn’t have anything I’m interested in, so the heck with it — I just won’t go to college at all,’” Stracher said.

Good news on the other side?
Still, administrators and students say the squeeze on community colleges may be beneficial in the long run, if it produces more workers with advanced training.

“We don’t have the option anymore of our people working an unskilled job to provide for their family,” said Eric Clark, executive director of the state board of community and junior colleges in Mississippi, where enrollment in two-year institutions has grown by more than 25,000 statewide in the past year.

That makes community colleges crucial during tough economic times, said Bradley Byrne, chancellor of the Alabama Community College System.

“We’re lifting up individual people,” he said, “and they in turn are lifting up the state.”

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