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Community Colleges Facing Sleepless Nights

By Abigail Rome
October 6, 2009

When I was in college, we'd either be asleep or in the bars at 1:00 am. Not so for college students these days. At Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, they're in psychology class. And, just six hours later, at 7:00 am, Northern Virginia Community College, bleary-eyed biology students are trying to focus on what's underneath their microscope lens. They have no choice but to start their school day before sunrise if they want to take Biology 101. The lab is required, and because there are 55 sections of the class, but only two lab classrooms, the school has extended its hours. In fact, these are just two examples of how community colleges across the country are adjusting their class schedules to serve rapidly growing student bodies.

A quick survey from west to east demonstrates the fact that community colleges are extremely popular. The seven community college campuses of the University of Hawaii report an increase in enrollment of 13.5% increase over last year. Northern Virginia Community College has 10% more students this fall than last, and nearby Montgomery College in suburban Maryland has a 7% increase. Even more dramatic is the growth at LaGuardia Community College in New York City: 25% more students at the end of the 2008-09 academic year than the year before.

Increased enrollments a factor of the economy

In an Inside Higher Ed article, Grace Truman, spokesperson at Palm Beach Community College in Lake Worth, Florida, speaks a universal truth when she says, "Our enrollment growth strongly correlates to downturns in the economy." Indeed, when students have tighter budgets, they choose to study close to home, choosing to attend schools that cost significantly less than traditional state-run or private four-year colleges and universities.

Unemployment and under-employment also influence community college admissions. People who have lost their jobs have spare time on their hands and good reason to want to gain new knowledge and credentials. It helps them expand their employability options so they can make the switch into more popular and/or lucrative careers. And, even those with jobs are hitting the books. In fact, many of them really appreciate the fact that they can attend school early in the morning, late at night or on weekends.

Budgets down, enrollments up

While students welcome the accommodations the colleges are making to help them continue their education, it's not so easy for the schools. In fact, the economic crisis has hit them with a double whammy: more students and less money. Community colleges are, in large part, dependent on state and local funding, but this year it's scarce. With many states facing large deficits, governors and legislators have slashed higher education budgets as much as 30%.

According to Dan Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, 31 states cut the budgets of public colleges and universities in the middle of the fiscal year that ended in June, and at least 26 states are calling for budget reductions for this year. Needless to say, the community colleges are feeling it.

Creating solutions to address burgeoning enrollments

Administrators are experimenting with a variety of ways to cope with new challenges. Ironically, De Anza Community College in the San Francisco Bay area is bucking the trend to extend classroom hours. They have cut back on early morning classes because they are traditionally under-enrolled. By trimming the number of class sections 5%, the school saves money, helping it adjust to budget shortfalls of about 11% per student.

The downside, however, results in a policy dilemma. Most community colleges are open admissions, meaning that they accept all students who want to attend. But, when classes are cut, students get closed out. At De Anza, there is a waiting list of 13,000 hopeful students for fall semester. This is in a school that had 19,000 students a year ago.

Online classes as an option

Another obvious, but only partial solution to the crisis is to offer more classes online, and many schools are doing that. The League for Innovation in the Community College and the Campus Computing Project published a study in March indicating that nearly three out of four community colleges have experienced online class enrollments increases of at least 5%. However, there has not been a parallel increase in enrollment in online degree programs. It turns out that the schools find it easier to add individual courses via the Internet than to develop comprehensive online programs.

The reason is that it is more work, and thus more expensive, for teachers to produce and teach online classes than traditional classroom courses. In a recent study released by the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities and the Sloan National Commission on Online Learning, two thirds of faculty members said it takes more effort to teach a course online than in a classroom and 85% said more effort is required to develop one.

The teachers also reported that they view inadequate compensation as a barrier to development of online courses. "If rates of participation among faculty are going to grow, institutions will have do a better job acknowledging the additional time and effort on the part of the faculty member," said Jeff Seaman, co-director of the Babson Survey Research Group and the survey's lead researcher, in an article published in Inside Higher Ed.

In spite of increased faculty expenses, the Washington Post reports that when all costs are considered, colleges and universities find that offering online classes is less expensive. No classroom space is needed, and schools do not have to provide students with other traditional on-campus benefits. Graduate students, who cost less than professors, are often used to teach online classes, and more students can be accommodated.

Additional solutions

So, if online classes is only part of the answer for community college administrators, what other tricks are they pulling out of their back pockets? First off, they are increasing tuition. According to a report issued by the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama in late September of this year, community college officials in 46 states said they would raise tuition by 5%, on average.

Next, in southern California and North Carolina, schools are reducing the number of classes they offer. Case in point: Palomar College in San Diego County is dropping 225 classes this coming spring. At the same time, schools are increasing full and part-time faculty members, offsetting the cost by reducing positions for academic advisors and other support staff. None of these solutions are very appetizing, but reality hits hard.

There is another source of hope, however: The Feds. President Obama is pushing a plan to inject $12 billion into community colleges over the next decade. It will increase Pell Grants, simplify student aid forms, add tax credits, and provide student loans directly from the government rather than subsidizing private loans. Obama proclaims that "these savings will allow us to make the largest investment ever in the most underappreciated asset in our education system" referring to community colleges, "which are so essential to the future of our young people."

If the President's words about the importance of locally based institutes of higher learning are heeded by federal lawmakers, as well as state level politicians and private funders, the community college crisis will be alleviated. And, as a result, administrators, faculty and students may again be able to get a bit more sleep at night.

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