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Community Colleges May Soon Start Turning Students Away

Nicole Rodriguez has been waiting a year to get into Pima Community College’s nursing program. But she’s running out of patience.

The Tucson-based Hispanic-serving institution has nearly 340 people on the waiting list to get into the program. The next available semester is spring 2011, according to the college, but Rodriguez, 24, says she was told she would have to wait three years to get admitted. She told Diverse she lost her original place on the list because she did not immediately respond to an email from the school asking her if she wanted to stay on it.

“So I’m probably starting all over again, which makes me really upset,” Rodriguez adds. “If all else fails, I’ll probably end up going to another school in another state that doesn’t have three-year waiting lists.”

Students are swarming to community colleges to learn new skills that will help them land a job in today’s tight economy. But some experts worry that community colleges – known as open access institutions – might start turning students away because the schools do not have enough space and lack the funding to handle the onslaught of new students.

At the core of a community college’s mission is not to turn any student away. But that is getting tougher to do, administrators say. As a result, many of these colleges now have waiting lists, especially for popular disciplines like nursing and other health-related programs.

Some schools are requiring students to wait an average of one to two years for these classes; others, like Pima, have had eight-year waiting lists that officials have now shaved down to about two to three years.

Budgets cut as enrollments swell

Arizona, in particular, has been hit hard by a state budget crunch, and community colleges are especially feeling the pinch. The state cut Pima Community College’s budget by 26 percent. At the same time, Pima Community College reported a 7-percent enrollment increase this semester as compared to spring 2008. School officials here say they might be forced to start shutting the door on new students.

“If the budget cuts continue much longer for another year or so, we will have to turn students away,” Dr. Roy Flores, chancellor of Pima Community College, tells Diverse. “I don’t see how we can get around that. We will simply offer fewer classes and probably take a close look at programs we’re offering.”

Pima had been preparing for the hit. Officials are leaving many positions vacant, cutting administrative positions and travel, and doing away with most of their discretionary expenditures, according to Flores. “Right now 14 percent of our positions are vacant and will not be filled. That will increase even more. We’re reducing administrative positions and protecting instruction at the same time,” Flores says. “There are some mission-critical positions that we do replace – in finance and physical plant and public safety – but, apart from that, everything else is on hold.”

Waiting and more waiting

Rodriguez is working as a cashier at a car dealership as she waits to get into Pima’s nursing program. She said she wants to go to another state to find a nursing program where she won’t have to wait. But that might be difficult.

Across the country in Miami, Fla., Lisa Vanoni’s year-long wait to get into Miami Dade College’s nursing program made her change career plans. “I didn’t want to wait anymore and that’s why I’m in the respiratory program now. Most of the people in my class – about 90 to 95 percent – are the same,” she says. “We were waiting and waiting and couldn’t get in so we decided to do something else instead of wasting our time. We call ourselves the nurse wannabes.”

Vanoni, 48, is a single mother. In addition to her fulltime class schedule, she works fulltime in sales in the travel industry. “I want to change industries because I want to do something in demand. Therapists and anything that has something to do with health is in demand. That’s what the economists are saying,” Vanoni says.

Miami Dade College does not keep waiting lists for health science programs like nursing or respiratory science, according to Dr. Norma Goonen, provost for academic and student affairs at the college, a Hispanic-serving institution that grants both two- and four-year degrees.

“We don’t have waiting lists. We’re limited access for the health sciences so not everybody gets in who wants to get in,” Goonen says. Those who apply and don’t get in must reapply all over again the following year.

“They might not be able to get in right away; they might have to wait a year,” adds Goonen. “But they can do something else while they are waiting.”

Vanoni had already fulfilled all the prerequisites for the nursing program prior to spending a year waiting to get in. She says she knows many people who waited, and some who are still waiting, for admission. 

Like Pima, Miami Dade College is struggling to cope with overall enrollment increases and budget cuts. Enrollment has increased 10 percent over the past year. At the same time, the college has eliminated nearly 1,000 class sections to deal with state budget cuts of $21 million, college officials say. That translates to increased class sizes in many programs.

It also likely means increased competition to get into limited enrollment programs like nursing, officials say.

‘Finding a way’

Though Flores says Pima Community College may have to stop admitting new students if budget cuts continue, some hope that colleges will find other ways to cope with a tough situation.

“The history of community colleges is in sucking it up and finding a way: letting classes get a little bit bigger, managing tightly, giving up maintenance and things like that,” says Robert McCabe, executive director of the National Alliance of Community & Technical Colleges, a consortium of colleges across the U.S. whose members share ideas, programs and innovations.

“You typically can pay a part-time faculty with the tuition you collect. So while making everything else tighter, you can add class sections,” says McCabe who once served as president of Miami Dade College and grew the student body from 1,500 to more than 70,000.

“Another thing is you can let classes get a little bit bigger if you’re planning carefully,” he adds. “For example, if the median class size is 27 and you let it get to 30, that’s not a big difference in the classroom and yet you’ve added 10 percent to the enrollment.”

But programs in the health fields are capped in how many students they can enroll by accreditation boards. And even in core general education classes, administrators cannot indefinitely increase the numbers of students.

“You can’t do it multiple years; it runs out because you’re not adding more counselors. You’re not adding anything else but faculty. I think that’s where most of community colleges are today,” says McCabe.

Community colleges are well known as open access institutions, schools that do not reject any potential students. “We just constitutionally don’t want to cut anybody out,” adds McCabe. “We still have, after all these years, a missionary zeal among community colleges about helping everybody.”

Becoming more selective

Meanwhile in Michigan where that state’s economy has been dealt a heavy blow by losses in the automotive industry, some community colleges are operating at 1998 budget levels, even as enrollments climb.

Cindy Allen, executive director of community relations at Jackson Community College in the south-central part of the state, says that, although students are flocking to the school, officials cannot continue opening additional class sections to accommodate them.

The school does not keep waiting lists for any of its programs, Allen says, but, just like Miami Dade College and Pima Community College, Jackson’s nursing program is very popular and students must go through a selective process to enroll in it.

Though Jackson Community College is coping, the school can only keep doing more with less for so long, Allen says.

“Obviously we have a number of students required in each section to break even or make it profitable for the college,” adds Allen. “We can’t afford to run sections with six students in it. At some point in time I think we easily could say we can’t do anymore, this is all we can do. This is very difficult for us as an institution because we truly want to help everybody who walks in our door.”

“There may be a point in the near future, she says, “where we’re going to have to make some tough decisions and actually cap the number of students we can accept.”

The beginning of the end for open access?

So far Pima Community College is keeping its doors open to everyone who wants to enroll. The school offered more class sections this semester to accommodate the additional students who enrolled.

“But I’m not sure we’ll be able to do that next semester,” says Flores. “We need to see the magnitude of budget cuts. The kind of student we have and the kind of institution we are dictate our classes don’t go beyond 20 to 25 students on average. If the choice is to offer a 600-student class or no class at all, we’ll not offer the 600-student class. We’ll just offer fewer, smaller classes.”

And that might mean turning students like Nicole Rodriguez away, Flores says.

“When you don’t offer a course or a section, by definition, students are not being served, so in that sense you’re already turning students away,” he adds. “It’s not as if you put them on a waiting list; you just don’t offer the course and they don’t show up.”

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