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Community Colleges Leave The Lights On a Lot Longer

NVCC and Other Campuses Add Hours, Options to Meet Influx

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 24, 2009

The biology labs at Northern Virginia Community College increasingly resemble Las Vegas casinos, at least in one respect: Inside the bright, windowless rooms, there's no telling whether it is day or night.

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Students rotate in and out from 6:30 a.m. until 10:10 p.m., peering through microscopes and dissecting frogs at hours more commonly associated with channel-surfing, dog-walking and sleep.

This year, the college is offering many more classes that start before 8 in the morning or end after 9 at night, the graveyard shift of higher education. With surging enrollment and dwindling funds, the institution lacks the classroom space to serve every student during traditional operating hours.

So, Virginia's largest college is making more use of the space it has. More than 20 fall courses are offered before 7 a.m. at NVCC. More classes are being offered in evenings, on weekends and online. Professors are no longer permitted to cap enrollment without demonstrating an instructional need.

In the past, the college had offered a few classes at odd times for the convenience of students with jobs and family duties that precluded 9-to-5 study. In the past year or two, though, graveyard-shift classes have become a relief valve for over-enrollment.

"It's good to have morning classes. I didn't necessarily want it to be this early," said Grace Picchiottino, 18, of Oakton, who signed up for Biology 101 at 6:30 a.m. Fridays because it was the last available section.

Community college enrollment in the Washington region rose by nearly 12,000 students this fall, a 10 percent bump. The recession diverted large numbers of high school seniors from four-year colleges to less-expensive two-year colleges.

"I've heard stories of high school students who were accepted at U-Va. or Virginia Tech, and what their parents have done is ask them to wait out a year, come here for a year, purely for economics," said Deborah DiCroce, president of Tidewater Community College in the South Hampton Roads region of Virginia. Fall enrollment at Tidewater was projected to rise to 30,500 this year from 26,898 last year.

Enrollment is booming, too, among the newly jobless, returning to school to find new careers.

State funding, meanwhile, has declined by nearly 20 percent from a year ago at Virginia's community colleges and by 5 percent at Maryland's community colleges, school officials said. There is less money to spend on classrooms.

In Picchiottino's pre-dawn biology lab, students try to stifle early morning coughs. Picchiottino drives to the Annandale campus in darkness. By 8, the campus will be mobbed. But at 6:30, she is nearly alone; parking is easy.

She and her classmates are mostly full-time students with part-time jobs and the occasional family obligation. Picchiottino works afternoons at a Hallmark shop. Zina Tihomirov, 21, works at a gym and cares for her father. Said Rojas, 20, works at a World Market and helps his parents run a family restaurant.


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