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Community Colleges Juggle Record Enrollments, Budget Cuts

Community Colleges Juggle Record Enrollments, Budget Cuts

by Robin Chen Delos

Sociology professor Lorraine Cohen worries more and more students will get shut out of New York City’s LaGuardia Community College if the governor’s proposed budget cut of 10 percent goes through.

Even now the signs are not looking good. The LaGuardia professor’s office is next door to the chair of social sciences’ office. “I see students coming in to try to get courses that are not available to them so they have to delay their graduation or progress in getting a degree,” Cohen says.

Community colleges across the country are reporting surges in enrollment as many people head back to college to learn new skills that might give them a competitive edge in today’s tough job market. At the same time, these colleges are facing state budget cuts, so they are struggling to find ways to meet increased demand for classes.

In some cases, they aren’t meeting this need.

“Students are being shut out of classes. I do not know how the administration will implement such a large cut [if it passes],” says Cohen in a telephone interview. “Spring semester begins in March. I don’t know how they will deal with enrollment, turning away students or increasing class size.”

“We have 300 students on the waiting list to get into the nursing program. It keeps growing,” says Dr. Gail O. Mellow, president of LaGuardia. Student enrollment for the spring semester at the school has jumped 32 percent, according to Mellow.

“There’s been an incredible increase in demand in the numbers of students who want to become involved in education,” Mellow tells Diverse. “We’re dealing with it by squeezing students into every available class we can. We’re working with students to maximize their ability to take classes that are open now.”

California’s San Diego Community College District is another system in a tough spot. “Over 7,000 students have been turned away from classes they needed to meet their career and transfer goals,” according to Richard Dittbenner, director of public information and government relations for San Diego’s community college system.

The spring semester hasn’t even started for San Diego’s community colleges, but already Dittbenner reports double-digit enrollment increases and says the district’s three community colleges have eliminated more than 300 classes in response to state budget cuts.

It won’t get better anytime soon. “We anticipate as our state apportionment continues to drop, we will have to cut more classes from the class schedule in the coming summer session and fall semester,” says Dittbenner.

Community colleges are seeing enrollments swell as budgets shrink in North Carolina too.

“Our fall enrollments were up by 6 percent, and we think our spring enrollments will be even greater than the fall,” says Dr. Scott Ralls, president of the North Carolina Community College System. “Typically, in the spring, enrollment goes down, but we anticipate it to go up because of all the layoff and plant closures in the last few months.”

State budget cuts have hit Ralls’ 58-college system hard. “We’re stretching in every way possible — working longer hours, increasing class sizes, cutting down in expenditures,” adds Ralls.

It’s typical for community college enrollments to increase during periods of recession.

“For many who’ve worked in community colleges and experienced recessions before, we’re used to increased numbers of students coming in during tough times. But what’s different now is that times are so tough and numbers so large it puts lots of stress on the system,” says Ralls.

That stress translates to cutting classes and even entire academic programs, adds Ralls. “You can’t keep everything away from the classroom as much as you want to. Some colleges may have to eliminate programs and classes.”

In terms of putting North Carolinians back to work, Ralls’ biggest priority is expanding community colleges’ health care programs.

“We think that’s the way we can have the greatest impact in putting people to work for jobs that are already here,” he says. “That’s where we can have the greatest impact. People graduating from those programs can go straight into the work force.”

Classes are also full in Indiana’s community college system.

“We just released our spring enrollment figures and were up by more than 11,000 students,” says Kelly Lucas, executive director of marketing and media relations at Ivy Tech Community College, Indiana’s only community college system. She adds that this growth is consistent with previous semesters.

But Indiana’s governor has cut Ivy Tech’s budget by $1.6 million. So far the school is coping.

“We won’t be cutting classes; we’ll be adding because of increased demand,” says Lucas. “Classes are available but students might not get their first choice of location because there’s so many students enrolling. … Students may have to select taking classes at learning sites located at community centers or local high schools.”

Many students, especially those who are older or nontraditional students, are also opting to take online courses because of full classes and out of convenience, according to Lucas.

Montgomery College, a community college in Maryland, is seeing increased enrollment and facing budget cuts at the same time. Students have not finished registering for spring semester classes but “enrollment looks strong for spring semester and we anticipate we’ll be up by 5 to 6 percent from where we were last year,” says Elizabeth Homan, a spokeswoman for the college.

They’ve instituted a hiring freeze on non-faculty positions and delayed major expenditures in response to budget cuts, according to Homan.

Following the nationwide trend, Texas’ Austin Community College enrollment is up by 20 percent this semester, but state legislators have yet to cut the college’s budgets.

“There have been no mid-year cuts, but legislators are talking about having $9 billion less than last year and saying they don’t want to cut higher education,” says Ben Ferrell, executive vice president for finance and administration at Austin Community College.

Unlike with community colleges in other states, students enrolled in Texas community colleges shouldn’t have a problem getting into the classes they need and want, Ferrell adds.

At least for the time being. 

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