Amid a foundering economy, many community colleges are experiencing enrollment increases that are “off the charts.”
Though community colleges specialize in “second chances” – be it a second chance to train for a career, a second chance to graduate from high school, or a second chance to get into the university of one’s dreams via a transfer – Dallas County (Texas) Community College District Chancellor Wright Lassiter remembers Schenectady County Community College (N.Y.) being derisively referred to as a “Second Chance Community College” when he arrived as president nearly 30 years ago.
Now, during a bruising recession in which millions of U.S. jobs have been lost, Lassiter and numerous other community college leaders report that their enrollments have been skyrocketing as out-of-work students seek training for a new career and veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan take advantage of the GI Bill to go to college. Also, community colleges are attracting another type of student, one who traditionally would go straight to a university but now is having second thoughts as one parent or two is jobless and as taking out tens of thousands of dollars in student loans amid shaky job prospects seems like a bad idea.
When asked to pay university tuitions, “parents are saying, ‘We just can’t afford it.’ So we’re saying to our faculty that they’ve got to take on some of the [attributes] of the four-year institutions, where you are doing all you can to broaden their experience, not just in a course,” Lassiter says.
In a keynote address last month at the NISOD Conference hosted by the Community College Leadership Program at the University of Texas at Austin, Lassiter spoke about the need to be innovative when it comes to learning environments. Lassiter cited the replacement of traditional classrooms with interactive studios at Eastfield College in the district he leads as an example of a way to rethink learning to the benefit of the growing number of students flocking to his district.
Lassiter says that, for the spring term that ended in May, the Dallas County Community College District had its highest credit enrollment in history.
“We had 72,000 credit students and that was up 10 percent over where we were last year,” he says. Furthermore, summer session enrollment numbers reflect a 13-percent increase. “So we are reasonably confident that, with the economy being the way it is and with the federal government making it a little easier to access Pell Grants, we’re going to have even more.”
Eastfield College Director of Career Services Patsy Caropresi says many of these students are studying to go into a health career. And even the college is “telling students that almost-recession-proof careers are in health care and in any kind of service that can’t be shipped overseas” like automotive or heating/cooling system repair. “Students are looking for safe careers right now,” Caropresi adds.
The Dallas district is not alone. Dr. Karén Bleeker, president of the Community College of Denver, says CCD’s enrollment in the fall and spring was up 12 and 13 percent, respectively, compared to last year. For the summer session, she adds, “it’s between 30 and 40 percent. So it’s off the charts. It’s higher than anything I’ve ever seen.”
Dr. Allen Goben, president of Hazard Community & Technical College in Hazard, Ky., says that the college had already embarked on a campaign to boost enrollment, so, when the recession hit, “we were already in the middle of a huge upswing in enrollment applications. We’ve seen two big waves since then, and we think we might get one more in the summer. …
While absorbing a surge in community college enrollment across the country, two-year college presidents are also having to deal with a steep drop in state and local appropriations, as tax revenues have fallen off a cliff due to plummeting home values and numerous mass layoffs.
“It’s definitely hard in Kentucky, because, in Kentucky, there’s no local taxation. It’s just the state and tuition and whatever you can get for grants,” Goben says. “Our college has been very proactive in pursuing grants to … help float the boat, so we’re pretty strong there,” he explains. But adds: “The state gave us a 3 percent mid-year rescission last year, followed by a 6 percent recurring cut this year and then they cut us 2 percent more in mid-year this year. So they’ve been hitting us and knocking us down, and we just get back up and keep after it. You keep doing more with less.”
Thus, according to Dr. Ernest Thomas, president of Tarrant County College’s South Campus in Ft. Worth, Texas, community colleges have to “be creative, and one way we strike the balance between high demand and limited resources is to develop more partnerships, particularly partnerships that result in a seamless transition for students from K-12 to higher education.” He adds that he sees a high level of student success when curriculums are better aligned “so that students will in fact not only gain the skills that are necessary to progress through the K-12 system but also understand the level of expectation that that student will have to face when they’re in the community college system.”
“Another way of being creative and innovative,” says Thomas, “is to develop more partnerships with our local industry and business so we understand their expectations better. The other piece of it is to develop better relationships with our feeder colleges and institutions so that students are moving all the way through the system.”
“Innovation is not only about being creative, it’s also about gaining efficiency, and that’s what we’re looking for,” Thomas adds.
Lassiter says balancing the demands of a growing student population while coping with fewer public resources is complicated by the stated desire of the Dallas district’s trustees to keep tuition as low as possible. “This means that people like me have to be year-round advocates to convey a message to the business leaders and the legislators that the key to the revitalization of our economy is providing education, and, when you make just a modest investment in education, you reduce the likelihood of these people going to prison. You have to preach that sermon over and over and over again.”
Dr. Brenda Hellyer, chancellor of the San Jacinto College District (Texas), says the economic climate has prompted the leaders of her district to consider “how are we going to repurpose dollars within this organization so that we can still provide the students everything they need? We don’t want to impact instruction or student support services, but what do we need to do differently and what can we reduce?” Ultimately, Hellyer says there’s a “good chance our people won’t get a raise this year because of that, and so you start looking at the impact throughout your organization.”
Dr. Terry Calaway, president of Johnson County Community College (JCCC) in Overland Park, Kan., says that Sprint, the largest employer in his college’s service area, recently laid off 8,000 employees and that, as a result, his college is “seeing a lot of people in the technology field all of a sudden thinking about something else.”
“It’s a real challenge for us,” Calaway explains. “The challenge we need to get at is how do we deal with our K-12 programs and how do we make sure that our colleges are ready, how do we make sure that we have the right support mechanisms for people who may not have been in school for 15 or 20 years [and] now all of a sudden are looking to retool. At our college, 24 percent of the students who attended last fall already had a bachelor’s degree.”
In response to this latest boom in students, JCCC spokeswoman Julie Haas says the college’s instruction department has augmented JCCC’s course offerings with more general education sections, though she says the college has not fundamentally “changed much” in light of the recession.
“We’re well aware of it, so that we know financial aid is prepared to see more people, counseling is prepared to see more people,” but, she says, “in many ways,” being ready for the influx of students a recession brings is “a state of mind.”
Ultimately, Bleeker says the recession “hasn’t been the average recession by anybody’s measure,” as it has hit “from all the directions it possibly could.” She explains that, in Colorado, the community college system took a 17.6-percent reduction to the state allocation.
Bleeker adds that legislators are “hard pressed to try to come up with where you get money to fund higher education if it isn’t generated by the state’s economy. What do you sacrifice in order to give higher ed what it needs? Do you sacrifice prison systems, do you sacrifice health care, do you sacrifice K-12? So they’re as hard pressed as we are to make this right.”
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