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By Paul Bradley  /  
2009 August 26 - 12:00 am

Colleges Struggle To Keep Head Above Water as Wave of Students Arrive

Colleges Struggle
To Keep Head Above Water
As Wave of Students Arrive

By Paul Bradley

In the weeks immediately prior to the first day of classes for the 2009-10 academic year, on-line registrations at Northern Virginia Community College were approaching 2,000 students a day.

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When the suburban-Washington D.C. college opens its doors for the fall semester, administrators expect about 70,000 students to be attending classes across the school’s five campuses. Over the past three years, the student headcount has jumped by 10,000, while state funding for the school has dipped by 15 percent.

Those numbers present a challenge to George Gabriel, the college’s vice-president for institutional advancement. He is in charge of finding space for all those students. As registrations pour in, Gabriel has been working deans to add some academic sections here, subtract others there, move large classes into bigger rooms and shift smaller classes accordingly.

“Some faculty members want to cap enrollment in their courses at, say, 24, for very valid pedagogical reasons,” he said. “We usually respect that. But we are working with our deans about opening up that capacity. We are trying to squeeze all the fat out of our capacity.”

The situation faced in Northern Virginia typifies the plight of community colleges across the country as the new academic year begins. Fueled by a historic recession and a higher-than-ever number of high school graduates, enrollment is reaching record levels, and colleges are scrambling to meet all of their demands, even as their budgets continue to shrink.

Gabriel said his college is taking numerous steps to add capacity. Its Annandale campus has added portable classrooms. Other campuses are renting buildings to open up more classroom space. Students unable to get a class at one campus are being directed to another campus, or being steered into distance learning classes.

While Gabriel believes that all students will be accommodated in one way or another, the situation a continent away, at the City College of San Francisco, is more dire. College President Don Q. Griffin said the college’s current budget was cut by about $15 million due to California’s budget crisis. That’s on top of a mid-year budget reduction last year.

Griffin predicts that about 5,000 students will be turned away this fall; the college has an enrollment of about 105,000. Of the college’s 9,800 classes, 800 have been eliminated because of budget cuts, he said.

“It’s a real struggle because the economy in California has tanked so badly.

Most troubling to Griffin is the fact that spending on student counseling services has taken a huge cut. This summer, the college limited counseling sessions to new students only. For the fall, students have encountered long lines for counseling session on things such as financial aid and career development. Budgeted counseling hours have been cut by 68 percent, he said.

For community college students, ready access to counseling services can mean the difference between success and failure.

Kay McClenney, director of the Community College Survey of Student Engagement, said student support services are critical to student success.

“Students tell us that,” she said. “Every year they say the most important thing to them is academic advising and planning. The need for these services is colliding with the budget cuts in California and elsewhere. Colleges are facing constraints based on traditional and outmoded approaches to education.”.

Said Griffin: “I absolutely believe that if you want students to advance, you need those support services. It is just as important as the academic program,”

Until the economy turns around, the struggles being experienced by community colleges are likely to deepen, Gabriel and Griffin said.

“We would rather be in this situation than have our enrollment falling,” Gabriel said. “We are getting by, with a lot of difficulty. But we are running out of time in terms of the next few semesters. At some point we might have to add short-term capacity, since it takes five to six years to construct a new building. I don’t think the trends that are driving enrollment are going to change.”

Griffin said CCSF is bracing for another round of budget cuts next year.

“The cuts we’ve experienced have been devastating,” he said. “But we are being very careful about what we cut. We want to be in a good position when we come out of this recession.”

Comments: editor@ccweek.com

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