Mixed Blessing: Enrollment at Community Colleges Spikes
This is reprinted with permission from The News & Observer of Raleigh.
For as many as eight hours a week, Mike Taylor, president of Stanly Community College, is not schmoozing donors or leading a meeting on scholarships at the school's Albemarle campus. He's teaching an online version of Political Science 120, American Government -- lecturing, drafting tests or grading papers.
At South Piedmont Community College, paralegal students have been spending hours in front of a computer when they ordinarily would have been in a classroom with an instructor. The school has increased enrollment in hybrid courses that are part-classroom and part-online by 70 percent over last year.
Both schools, like North Carolina's other 56 community college campuses, are responding to an unprecedented spike in enrollment. Not surprisingly, much of the increase is the result of unemployed workers seeking retraining in hopes of finding new jobs.
Enrollment has also ballooned because community colleges are a bargain. Recession-weary high school graduates who are short on money are spending a year or two at a community college before moving on to a more expensive four-year university. Roughly speaking, in-state tuition for a full-time student at Wake Tech Community College, in Raleigh, is $1,600 per year, compared with almost $3,900 at UNC-Chapel Hill.
"That has been the biggest change, a growing number of young people who are going to a technical program or to get started on general courses and move to a university at a later date," said South Piedmont President John McKay.
College enrollment nationally hit an all-time high last October of 11.5 million, or 40 percent of young adults from age 18 to 24, according to a Pew Center study released Thursday. Enrollment has been rising for years, but the recent spike was entirely at community colleges, according to the report.
While enrollment at four-year institutions was flat from 2007 to 2008, community college student ranks jumped from 3.1 million to 3.4 million young adults. The schools have seen that uptick continue this year.
"That's the community college story," said Scott Ralls, president of the state system. "The worse the economy is, the more likely we are to grow."
North Carolina's community colleges grew out of the industrial expansion after World War II. An increasing number of workers needed more than a high school education but not a four-year degree, and state leaders responded by quickly building a network of community colleges and industrial education centers that is now among the largest in the country.
The Budget Tightens
This year, community college campuses have felt the crunch of more bodies at the same time their budgets have been pinched by cuts in state funding.
The system estimates it has the equivalent of 96,000 full-time students this fall. Many of its students are part time, so calculations are based on the number of courses taken instead of just a head count. That's an increase of more than 14 percent, or about 12,000 over last fall.
In response, administrators are adding evening and online courses, increasing faculty workloads and increasing class sizes. Students are feeling it.
"They're so crunched for space. I don't think there's a lot of one-on-one attention [from instructors] anymore," said Sara Leon, 19, a South Piedmont student.
State budget cuts fell less severely on community colleges than some agencies this year, but the funding was still trimmed by about 6 percent. There's no extra money to hire additional instructors or add classroom space. The colleges have to improvise and adapt.
Pulling Double Duty
Taylor, president at Stanly Community College, is among a long list of administrators who trade desks for lecterns during part of the day. He returned to teaching for the first time in three or four years, helping ensure his school's adage: "Education any time, any place, any pace."
Nearly half of the schools in the system report ordering administrators into the classroom to help meet the demand for courses, though some have been teaching for years.
Jerry Simpson, vice president for student services at Randolph Community College, returned to the classroom this fall to teach a study skills course. It subtracts from his ability to do his day job, but the teaching time can be rejuvenating, he said.
"You have not only the classroom time, but the preparation and grading," Simpson said. "On the other hand, it's very satisfying."
South Piedmont's Monroe campus was already packed with a trailer park of temporary classrooms before the current enrollment surge. To help relieve the squeeze on classrooms, more instruction has moved online. Last fall 1,205 students at the school's two campuses took at least one online course. This semester the figure is 1,528, a 27 percent increase.
The school also has pumped up its "blended" class format, which is part classroom instruction and part online, from 189 students last year to 322 this year.
"They might meet one day on campus," said McKay, South Piedmont's president. "That frees up classroom space."
Students, though, get less direct instruction to help guide them through assignments, said Laura Haynes, 20, a South Piedmont student taking three blended classes.
"Half of our class work ends up being online because we can't get it all in class," said Haynes, of Wadesboro. "It takes much longer to get our papers back in classes and see how we're doing."
Heather Hooks, a communications instructor at South Piedmont, said faculty and students alike muddle through the obstacles created by crowding. Enrollment means potential employment to students and continued employment for faculty.
"Whatever frustration there is from, 'I'm going to have five more students than last year,' the next thought is, 'But I still have a job,'" Hooks said.
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