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By Paul Bradley  /  
2010 August 9 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: School’s in for the Summer

Photo courtesy houston community College District

Welding classes are among those attracting increasing numbers of students to community colleges this summer.

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School’s in for the Summer
Colleges Experiencing Record Enrollment During Summer Months

By Paul Bradley

It used to be that summertime at community colleges was marked by barren, sun-drenched campuses and mostly empty classrooms.

Students who were there were mostly looking to atone for one academic shortcoming or another. Instructors were making a few extra dollars teaching a section or two. Administrators not on vacation were busy preparing their campuses for the traditional start of the school year in the fall.

But those lazy, hazy days of summer are a thing of the past — if not forever, then at least, apparently, for the duration of the persistent economic downturn responsible for soaring enrollments at community colleges.

Across the country, community colleges are experiencing record-high enrollments this summer. Many of the same factors that have colleges bursting at the seams from September to May are keeping students in their seats all summer.

Some examples:

  • Maine Community College System officials say enrollment at the state’s seven community colleges is up 16 percent from last year, to 4,960 students. Enrollment at Central Maine Community College has increased 60 percent this summer compared to a year ago, while the student count is up 44 percent at York County Community College. Enrollment has risen 13 percent at Southern Maine Community College.

  • In New Jersey, 15 of 20 colleges surveyed by the Newark Star Ledger reported summer enrollment spikes, including several of 10 percent or more. The schools reporting the largest increases included: Hudson County Community College (11 percent), Passaic County Community College (10 percent), and Union County College (16.6 percent).

  • The Houston Community College District, which saw a dramatic increase in enrollment last fall, has seen it extend into the summer session. Enrollment this summer was 43,107 students, compared to 39,097 last year, a spike of more than 10 percent. About 72,000 students are enrolled during the regular school year.

  • In Mississippi, the state’s 15 community colleges enrolled 37,150 students this summer, an increase of about 30 percent over last year. Five years ago, summer enrollment was 25,058, and since then, the system has seen a steady increase in summer enrollment.

Poor Economy

College officials attribute the rising numbers to the poor economy, persistently high unemployment and the desire of students and displaced workers to burnish their credentials at an affordable cost. Last fall, the average tuition for a full-time community college student was $2,544; the average for-profit college by contrast, charged $14,174.

“The economy is the main factor,” said John Fitzsimmons, president of the Maine Community College System. “What really is affecting enrollment in our state is the chronic underemployment. We turned away 4,000 students last year.”

But those students are not staying away, Fitzsimmons said. Instead, many of them are enrolling in summer classes, trying to satisfy their general academic requirements while awaiting admission to programs that are in high demand, such as nursing.

“If you want to get into one of the health professions at one of colleges, you have a two- to three-year wait,” Fitzsimmons said. “People are taking care of their prerequisites now.”

Fitzsimmons also sees a rising education ethic in Maine. The lingering recession, he said, has made people realize that earning a credential beyond a high school diploma has become a necessity.

“There has been a sea change,” Fitzsimmons said. “You can go back about eight years, and we were selling ourselves. You don’t have to do that anymore. People are coming to us.”

Bottom Line

Affordability. Last fall, the average tuition for a full-time community college student was $2,544; the average for-profit college by contrast, charged $14,174

“I think people are getting the message,” he added. “They are recognizing the value of education. And for a lot of people, the low-cost option is the only option. We are getting a lot of poor people, but also increasing numbers of middle-class people. There are also people who are looking to lower the cost of a four-year degree.”

Those kinds of “reverse transfers” — university students taking courses at community colleges to save money and speed their path to a college degree — are feeding the exponential growth of summer enrollment in Mississippi, officials said.

At Hinds Community College, the largest in the state, officials estimate the number of reverse transfers was up 38 percent in summer 2010 over the summer before.

“The upturn in university students taking summer classes with us is another indication that parents and students are choosing close-to-home, more affordable
options,” said Jay Allen, dean of enrollment services.

Eric Clark, director of the State Board for Community and Junior Colleges, said comunity colleges’ connections to the local communities make them an inviting choice for students contemplating summer coursework.

“Historically, our enrollment goes up when the economy struggles,” he said. “Community colleges are close to home, they are relatively inexpensive and we teach both job skills and academics. We can teach people to be a nurse or a plumber.”

Closing the Gap

“When folks are fearful of their job security realizing that they need to improve their skills, and community colleges are the place to do it. The 21st Century will belong to the educated. If you have just a high school diploma, you are consigning yourself to a life of welfare or minimum wage jobs.”

Clark said many Mississippi community colleges are intent on closing the gap between available jobs in the state and the skills of the workforce.

“We have lots of jobs in Mississippi for people with the right skills,” he said. “There are a lot of jobs for welders and nurses. But people need the skills.”

The enrollment summertime surge also presents difficult challenges to colleges, Clark said. Beset with budget problems, Mississippi, like other states, is reducing spending on community colleges even as enrollment is headed in the opposite direction.

For the fiscal year which started July 1, state tax appropriations will be down 10.5 percent from the year before, and that’s on top of mid-year budget cuts last year, Clark said.

“It’s a tough problem,” he said. “We are squeezing more students into classrooms. We are hiring more adjuncts. We are postponing maintenance. We are doing what we have to do to get by.”

The Houston Community College District, meanwhile, experienced dramatic enrollment growth during the past academic year, and that trend has continued into the summer, said Diana Pino, vice chancellor for student services.

“The prime reason is the economy,” she said. “People are trying to retool. But some students are coming back home to work or to save money by living with their parents. They want to take advantage of the fact that we’re less expensive than four-year universities.”

The Houston District is also seeing a large increase in the number of veterans returning to school under benefits made possible by the new GI Bill. In 2009, the district enrolled about 1,200 veterans. That number has jumped by a third to about 1,800 vets, Pino said.

The district is also seeing an influx of so-called non-traditional students — older students returning to the classrooms for the first time in years, displaced workers searching for a place in a changing economy, students with college degrees whose jobs have been outsourced or otherwise vanished and are trying to change professions.

“The traditional college student doesn’t exist, especially for community colleges,” she said. “Neither does the traditional academic year. It used to be that the year went from fall to spring. But now students want access immediately. They are taking steps to reduce their time to a credential. That’s the new reality.”

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