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Community Colleges See Demand Increase as Funding Decreases

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By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Hundreds of thousands of students are likely to be turned away from low-cost community colleges across the country over the next year because of funding cuts at the very time that record numbers of students are flocking to the open-admission schools, according to education officials.

The Obama administration is promising to help the country's almost 1,200 community colleges, which educate about 12 million students, or 44 percent of all undergraduates, including the majority of blacks and Hispanics. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel recently said that the administration was working on a plan that would allow as many as 5 million more students or laid-off workers to attend the schools, which are at the fore of retraining efforts.

But it is not clear whether the infusion of resources will be sufficient or swift enough to stop the plans of schools across the country to trim programs and staff as a result of severe budget cuts from state and local governments, school officials say.

"For us to turn away students is anathema," said Norma Kent, vice president of communications for the nonprofit American Association of Community Colleges, based in the District. "We are open-enrollment institutions. It's in our DNA."

In the greater Washington area, officials at community colleges say they are trying to find ways to handle a decline in resources without rejecting students, but with enrollment rising, it might not be possible to serve everyone.

"I worry about it all the time," said Robert Templin, president of Northern Virginia Community College, which has lost more than 10 percent of its state funding, or $8.2 million in the past two years, and is preparing for the possibility of an additional 5 percent cut. "We're trying to make up some of the cuts through tuition increases, but it is not enough to help us keep up with demands. These state budget reductions are happening at a time when more and more people recognize that getting a college education is critical to their future."

The recession has driven state and local legislatures -- which provide community colleges with 60 percent of their funding -- to cut resources for the schools as they try to close deep deficits.

At the same time, high unemployment is driving more people to seek low-cost retraining. And difficult economic times are prompting some parents to send their children to two-year schools rather than more expensive four-year institutions. The result is an unprecedented surge in the number of applicants to community colleges.

Community colleges, Kent said, are "the safety valve" for the neediest students. Average tuition and fees total about $2,400, compared with the average tuition of $6,600 for in-state public four-year colleges, according to the AACC. The most vulnerable students, she said, are first-generation -- often minorities -- who might not enroll early enough to beat new caps or class-size limits.

"It's sad," she said. "Community colleges are under greater stress than they've ever been, just when they are in more demand than they have ever been."

Under a Maryland funding formula, the state's 16 community colleges were supposed to receive $50 million in new money for fiscal 2010 but got only $7 million. The District has no community college, although one is expected to open this fall at the University of the District of Columbia.

Templin cut 45 full-time staff positions at NVCC but has hired more adjunct professors to handle a record number of students. Summer enrollment is up 10 percent from a year ago, and officials expect a big jump in the fall.

Montgomery County Community College officials said that some students might be unable to attend this fall because financial aid applications are up almost 20 percent and state assistance has not increased, said spokeswoman Elizabeth Homan.

"We do not turn students away, as we are open admissions, but we cannot fulfill every student's financial needs or scheduling considerations," she said.

At Prince George's Community College, where enrollment has increased by at least 4 percent each of the past two years to more than 37,000 students, officials are holding staff vacancies open longer than usual, freezing some positions and delaying hires -- all of which is aimed at saving about $500,000, said school spokesman Deidra Hill.

At the 57,000-student Anne Arundel Community College, officials are trying to deal with enrollment increases while working with a 2009-10 budget that has the same funding as two years ago, said Linda Schulte, director of public relations and marketing. Still, she said, circumstances would have been worse if the state had not directed $1 million in federal stimulus money to the school. About 15 staff positions have been frozen, she said.

Kent said hundreds of thousands of students could be turned away this coming year from community colleges, especially in states where the legislatures are facing the deepest deficits.

The largest community college in the country, Miami Dade College, announced that it is effectively capping enrollment at the current 167,000 students for the first time because of deep budget cuts by the Florida legislature. Because no class sections can be added, officials there say they expect more than 5,000 students to be unable to enroll in any classes this fall and at least 30,000 more to miss out on classes necessary for graduation.

In the 110-school California system, at least 200,000 students could be forced to give up plans to enroll this coming year, officials there said.

One school, City College of San Francisco, has announced a plan to allow individuals to pay $6,000 to save a course on the chopping block and rename it after the donor in return -- although school trustees postponed implementation.

The San Diego Community College District is expecting to cut $10 million from its 2009-10 budget -- on top of the $10 million it eliminated last year. As a result, 117 full-time employee positions will be eliminated, as will more than 1,300 classes.

"All of us are concerned about the reduction in classes when the region's high unemployment has caused many to turn to community colleges for retraining," District Chancellor Constance Carroll said in a statement.

At Tacoma Community College in Washington state, fall enrollment is 40 percent ahead of last year, and more than 40 sections -- mostly in math, science and English -- have been added. The school was 14 percent over-enrolled last year, said communications director Dale Stowell, meaning it received no state funding for one in every seven students. With classes expected to be filled sometime next month, he expects many students to be turned away.


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