MONROE, La. – With President Barack Obama setting a goal of producing 5 million more community college graduates in the next decade, it seems community colleges, long an afterthought of higher education, are finally having their moment.
But they’re quickly finding out it’s no cakewalk, with new challenges coming with the added responsibility.
Community colleges’ trials are the result of a coalescence of several factors: limited space, diminishing state funding, the sluggish economy and a legislative push from states including Louisiana to funnel more students into two-year institutions.
Offering cold comfort to schools in the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, including Monroe’s Louisiana Delta Community College, is the fact that their situation is not unique: In states across the country, most dramatically in California, students are being turned away because of booming enrollment.
As Delta moves the final pieces from its former home at Coenen Hall on the University of Louisiana at Monroe campus—the building will return to the management of the University of Louisiana at Monroe, which is likely to move its enrollment services there—and prepares to open its new $40 million campus on 70 acres east of Pecanland Mall, limited space and resources are a concern.
Rapid growth at the college—enrollment this summer was up 40 percent over last year—and throughout its parent system has given rise to a set of difficulties that figure to challenge Delta’s leadership and the state for years.
Delta Chancellor Luke Robins said that, even with the new campus opening, Delta will continue to lease space at Eastgate Shopping Center as an outlet for overflow from the main campus.
“It’s only a matter of time before you reach capacity at least during prime time hours,” Robins said. “It’s too early to tell yet, but we may be close to it this fall.”
Delta’s new campus could handle 3,500 to 4,000 students if classes were running at capacity all day, but that will not happen unless less popular afternoon classes fill up.
Robins said he’s pondering offering a discounted rate for such classes to entice more students who work to shift their schedules in order to take classes in the afternoon.
If and when the new campus and the Eastgate space reach capacity, Robins and Louisiana Community and Technical College System President Joe May said Delta and other campuses will rent additional space.
“We probably lease more instructional space than any other system in the state,” said May, who predicts double-digit enrollment growth systemwide this fall.
May said Delta is “probably more fortunate than some other colleges” in the state in terms of the space it has to work with.
The strain on facilities is occurring because of the relative affordability of two-year schools, additional and more comprehensive articulation agreements that allow students to more easily transfer credits to four-year schools, the increasing number of unemployed or underemployed people seeking new training that will make them more attractive to employers, and changing state policy.
Earlier this year, a higher education study group commissioned by the Legislature recommended that the state attract more students to community colleges instead of four-year schools as a way to improve graduation rates and reduce the cost of educating the state’s work force.
Then last month, the Legislature passed the Gov. Bobby Jindal-backed LA GRAD Act, which will allow state colleges to increase their tuition by up to 10 percent yearly until they reach the average tuition of their regional peers starting this fall. In exchange, the institutions commit to increasing performance in areas including graduation rates.
The thinking is that stronger admissions standards created by the Louisiana Granting Resources and Autonomy for Diplomas Act will force more students to start their educations at community colleges and lessen the strain on the state’s merit-based scholarship, the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students.
Robins said he knows it’s not possible to build infrastructure quickly enough to keep up with enrollment, but the new campus master plan accounts for at least four potential new buildings that would be constructed as financing allows.
More students mean classes required for popular majors like nursing, which hold the prospect of landing students in coveted high-paying jobs, are in great demand.
Robins said every seat in anatomy and physiology, required for nursing, is already booked for the fall semester.
“It’s getting to a point now, where if you don’t (register) when you have the opportunity, you’re going to find yourself in a real situation trying to register later,” he said.
For his part, May said the system has committed to the colleges that the system will never close a section. “As we’ve seen, to some extent our growth depends upon our ability to offer sections,” he said.
That commitment means hiring more adjunct, part-time faculty
Robins said it’s challenging to find qualified adjuncts who are willing to teach part time or during non-night hours.
Most adjuncts have a full-time job during the day, he said.
“That’s probably the bigger problem for a lot of the colleges,” Robins said.
“Given the budget situation we’ve got, we really can’t hire full-timers except where we can use, for instance, rapid-response funding or something like that to help us underwrite the cost of a full-time faculty member.”
Long term, over-reliance on adjuncts is a problem for colleges like Delta, Robins said, because colleges need a “critical mass” of full-time faculty to maintain accreditation.
Delta and the LCTCS are looking for creative ways to combat the problem.
One solution could be increasing the use of hybrid classes, which would feature just one face-to-face meeting per week with the bulk of instruction delivered online.
“There’s a lot of things we can do,” Robins said. “But, in the long term, infrastructure is still a problem.”