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Community colleges are getting an education in tough economics

By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 27, 2010; A01

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

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.

"It's a personal tragedy for someone seeking the skills to become a nurse or a firefighter or whatever it may be," said California Community Colleges Chancellor Jack Scott. "But in the long run, it's a tragedy for the economy."

Here in Las Vegas, with among some of the nation's highest unemployment, the College of Southern Nevada last fall turned away 5,000 students who sought classes that were filled.

For a single biology class, "BIO 189," a prerequisite for most of the degrees in the popular health-care fields, more than 2,450 students applied for 950 seats. The college now turns away students from every class in biology, the physical sciences and math, said Sally Johnston, dean of the School of Science and Mathematics at the College of Southern Nevada.

"Unfortunately, many say the heck with it and walk away," President Michael D. Richards said.

A reshaped economy

In Las Vegas, as well as nationally, some of the most overgrown portions of the bubble economy will not need as many workers as before, economists say, forcing workers to find jobs in other fields.

Here, it is the gambling and construction industries that have shrunk. Gambling revenue remains down about 15 percent on the Strip, and the once-booming construction industry in Nevada, where more than 27,000 homes a year were being built, has ground to a halt. One condo-hotel project on the Strip, the Echelon, has been left an unfinished 12-story concrete shell.

For the workers affected, it was as if an era had ended.

"There were just no more tips," said Stephanie Stone, 27, a mother of three who was a cocktail server at the Palomino Club, a strip club. "And I've always wanted to be a nurse."

Eriqua Horgan, 26, who has worked in the nightclub business as well, said that before the bust, people were buying $1,000 bottles of champagne. "Mortgage brokers, everybody wrapped up in the real estate business had money. Now. . .they're not buying anything," she said.

The reshaping of the economy here has pushed countless workers to community colleges where they hope to build a new career.

Among the most popular programs at the college here are those that offer immediate employment, such as in health care - respiratory therapy, ultrasound technology, dental hygiene - and some technical and accounting fields, college officials said.

The appeal of community colleges is also financial: At a time of rocketing college costs, community colleges have remained a bargain compared with four-year schools.

That's partly because budgets at community colleges have grown more slowly than at other institutions, according to an analysis of federal education statistics by the Delta Cost Project. In 2008, the education-related spending for an average full-time student at a community college was $10,400. It was about 20 percent to 50 percent higher at public universities, and at least 50 percent more at private four-year colleges.

Many of those already-constrained community college budgets are now being cut - sometimes severely - despite the growing enrollments.

In Virginia, a series of reductions since 2008 has dropped annual state funding for community colleges by $105 million, while enrollment has grown by 26,000 students. In Maryland, state funding per full-time student has dropped 12 percent over the past three years.

Here in Las Vegas, state funding for the College of Southern Nevada has dropped more than 17 percent while the number of students, on a full-time basis, has risen 12 percent. While a federal stimulus bill provided funding to community colleges, that money is about to run out, too.

"In Nevada, we have to accommodate state budget priorities such as Medicare, public safety, including corrections, and K-12 education," Richards said. "Higher education comes in fourth or fifth in the list."

To combat the budget cuts, the College of Southern Nevada has increased the proportion of cheaper adjunct faculty, closed two of 11 learning centers in the community, and held classes at midnight to maximize the use of class space.

"Some of the time, we simply do not have enough physical space to accommodate everyone," Richards said.

Nationally, the tightened budgets have come as the U.S. workforce has been falling behind that of some other countries by some key measures of educational attainment.

In the early 1980s, the United States led the world in terms of the proportion of young people it graduated from universities. Now it ranks 14th, according to figures from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development.

Obama has highlighted the international comparisons and pledged that by 2020, "America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world."

It won't be cheap, however, and the cutting of community college budgets signals politicians' lack of enthusiasm for higher education spending at a time of budget deficits.

Said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce: "The bottom line is, we're closing off access to education to a large group of people."

An uneasy return

In conversations with dozens of workers seeking new skills here at the College of Southern Nevada, it is clear that many are aware that investing the money and time into classes requires sacrifice. As a result, their faith that the training is worth the trouble is often fragile.

Many haven't sat in a classroom for decades. Some are frustrated in their efforts to find a babysitter or have to juggle a full-time job. Many wonder whether they are just too old to make a change.

As a result, waiting lists and other hassles can easily push students to abandon college plans.

Katheryn Holligan, 42, used to be a cocktail waitress at Circus Circus, wearing high heels and carrying a heavy tray until she was physically worn out, and her wait station was cut. She is simultaneously preparing to get a real estate license and to get into a nursing program. In the meantime, she and her husband have tapped their savings and have started to have smaller Christmases for their three children.

She fears that even with a nursing degree, she will have difficulty competing with younger students. That she couldn't get into a class recently was especially discouraging, she said.

"I'm going to be 43 soon, and I look around the class and see these 20-year-olds that I'm going to be competing against. I know that I'm good. But physically. . .well, I'm realist."

Anthony Yurkonis, 27, a burly construction worker who was laid off a year ago, said he and his wife have no health insurance for the first time in their lives.

"It's not a simple thing to go to school yourself when you have three kids," he said.

Yurkonis, who is taking classes in finance and accounting, holds a part-time job helping new students find their way through registration. He sees lots of construction workers coming in.

"I see tons of guys who are exactly like me. They've been doing construction jobs their whole life and raking it in," said Yurkonis, who was earning about $75,000. "We thought it was never going to end. But now they don't even know how to work a computer. They don't know what a mouse is. They look at the thing and say, 'What the heck is this?'

"I see them coming through the front door here, and they just look lost," he said.

Even so, some of them, like Yurkonis, decided there were few other options than school.

"I just walked in here and said, 'Listen, I got to find something else to do.' "

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