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Community colleges are getting an education in tough economics

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By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 27, 2010

LAS VEGAS - The gambling economy here has crapped out, but at the swelling community college, workers are in the grip of new aspirations.

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In one small anatomy lab, there's a craps dealer training to become an anesthetist, a cocktail waitress who wants to be a dental hygienist, and a former stripper seeking to become a nurse.

"People are always going to be going to the dentist," explained Misty Stevenson, 36, the aspiring hygienist, a mother of three and a cocktail waitress for 16 years, explaining her career choice after her income plunged during the downturn.

The trouble is getting a seat in class.

All over the United States, community college enrollments have surged with unemployed and underemployed people seeking new skills.

But just as workers have turned to community colleges, states have cut their budgets, forcing the institutions to turn away legions of students and stymieing the efforts to retrain the workforce.

Unemployment is highest among the nation's lesser-educated workers, and for them, community colleges offer a critical pathway to new jobs: Classes are open, relatively cheap and often tailored to picking up job skills.

The process of retraining these workers is considered vital to rebuilding the economy.

The institutions are "a gateway for millions of Americans to good jobs and a better life," President Obama said at a community college summit in the fall.

But with waning state budgets, that gateway is narrowing.

Even as community college enrollments have climbed during the recession, 35 states cut higher education budgets last year, and 31 will cut them for next year, according to survey data from the National Association of State Budget Officers. Those shortages are expected to worsen next year when federal stimulus money that had plugged holes in state budgets is no longer available.

In California, with a budget cut of 8 percent across the board, the community colleges turned away 140,000 students last year. In Colorado, the waiting lists for nursing programs at some of the state's community colleges have grown to as long as 3.5 years. In May, New York's community colleges stopped accepting applications for the fall semester and added students instead to a waiting list.


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