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Virginia’s community colleges see record enrollment

Community colleges see record growth and younger students

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Print this page by Heather B. Hayes

Andrew Banker wants a university degree, and he plans to get one, just not in a traditional way. Instead of going away to a four-year college like his sister did, the 19-year-old Suffolk resident enrolled in a two-year modeling/simulation program at nearby Tidewater Community College. When Banker graduates, he hopes to land a full-time job in the defense industry, designing simulation modules for training jet pilots and other military personnel.

Once he’s collecting a paycheck, he will sign up at a four-year college and finish his bachelor’s degree at his own pace — via distance learning or night classes.

“It really is all about the money,” Banker explains. “I don’t want to be racking up all this student loan debt. By going to a community college, I can live at home with my parents. I don’t have to pay for housing or food plans or all the other stuff.  My only expense is the tuition and my commuting costs, which are minimal, and I can concentrate completely on learning.”

Banker’s practical attitude isn’t uncommon these days at Virginia community colleges. Not only are two-year institutions seeing a massive influx of unemployed workers and people with jobs trying to upgrade their skills, but they’re also welcoming more recent high school grads. These students are taking advantage of the community college’s convenience and a tuition cost that is only a third of that of the average public university.

Like Banker, many of the new converts are young and male. According to the Virginia Community College System (VCCS), more than 50 percent of students now are 24 and younger, compared with 36 percent in 2007. And for the first time in more than a decade, many community colleges are seeing more men signing up for courses — although women still dominate the rolls. Tidewater Community College, for example, saw enrollment rates for men rise by 19 percent in the 2009 fall semester versus 15 percent for women.

Many students of both sexes are attracted by the offer of guaranteed transfer agreements to in-state, four-year schools. Others see the benefits of a non-linear approach to education, peppering their journey with a strategic mix. They obtain a technical/vocational degree followed by on-the-job experience and steady income before pursuing a four-year degree or graduate diploma.

“Nationally and at our school the average age of students has been dropping for at least a half decade now,” says David A. Sam, president of Germanna Community College near Fredericksburg.  Younger students are bumping up the workload for community colleges, he says, because they tend to take full course loads of credit hours.

“Things are not nice, neat and tidy the way they used to be in education in general,” says Deborah DiCroce, president of Tidewater Community College. Even students accepted to top schools, such as the University of Virginia, are opting for a two-year community college start. “The lines are blurred now,” notes DiCroce. “We’re in a knowledge-based economy, and education will by necessity be a lifelong pursuit. But at the same time, with the economy the way it is, people want to be in programs that give them job-ready skills, and they want to stretch their education dollars as far as they can.”

Continuing growth
These trends translate into unprecedented growth for community colleges. According to VCCS, 262,444 students took credit courses in the 2008/2009 school year, the latest annual figures available. From the fall 2007 semester to the fall 2009 semester, total headcount in community colleges statewide increased from 167,163 to 189,275 students, a jump of 13.2 percent. During that same time period, the number of students that attended community colleges on a full-time basis increased nearly 19 percent, rising from 91,182 in fall 2007 to 108,275 in fall 2009.

At Tidewater Community College, total enrollment skyrocketed nearly 20 percent from the fall of 2008 to 2009.  Enrollment at Blue Ridge Community College (BRCC) in Weyers Cave is up 11 percent this school year and 7 percent at Virginia Western Community College in Roanoke. Germanna Community College experienced an overall enrollment increase of 8 percent this spring, and the number of full-time students jumped by 16 percent.

Community college officials expect demand to continue — albeit likely at a slower growth rate — for the foreseeable future. This prediction comes despite signs of a recovering economy and the recent overhaul of the federal student loan program (bundled as part of the health-care reform law). The program provides direct federal loans to students, promising more favorable interest rates and payback terms and an increase in the number and amounts of Pell grants.
“Our experiences reflect that the increasing costs and resultant enrollment caps of public and private four-year institutions are causing many to seek the access and affordability of community colleges,” says Robert H. Sandel, president of Virginia Western Community College in Roanoke.

Growing demand — and the change in student demographics — is causing many community colleges to rethink their long-term strategy and even tweak their educational models. “We will need to be more innovative than ever to acquire efficient and effective methods of delivering training and instruction,” says John A. Downey, president of BRCC.

Plus, community colleges will need to be more creative in their ability to generate revenue from new sources. Like other educational institutions, they are feeling the pinch of having to do more with less. While community colleges are now eligible for competitive grants of more than $2 billion in federal money — spelled out in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) and finally funded by the recent student loan reform package — they’ve also been hit hard by state budget cuts.

During the past three years, for example, Virginia Western Community College has lost $4.3 million in state support. In 2010, the school’s total budget of $27.6 million was further reduced by $1.8 million in state cuts, but ARRA funding returned $800,000.  However, notes Sandel, the equation still results in a $1 million shortfall in funding for the college for 2010. Overall, once ARRA funding runs out in 2012, community colleges in Virginia will face a 13 percent decrease in government funding.

Many community college officials worry openly about the funding shortfalls. “The gap between what our communities and students need from us and what we can do is growing, and our staff and faculty, while responding heroically, are stretched to their limits,” says Sam, of Germanna Community College.

Coping skills
However, says Sandel, there are cost-cutting and efficiency-promoting strategies that community colleges can take without hurting educational quality. His school is leveraging technology to bridge the gap, offering more online learning, using technology in the classroom to enhance the delivery of instruction in traditional face-to-face settings and developing new technology-enabled programs to meet the needs of a growing population of students who require remedial courses.

Germanna Community College offers more distance learning as well. This approach meets “the needs of students who need to shift time in order to fit their education into a busy schedule,” says Sam. Another benefit?  Germanna doesn’t have enough buildings as it is to accommodate demand, and online students can log into class from home.

Other cost-saving measures include bigger classes, a freeze on vacant positions, reduced energy consumption and cutting down on paper usage by combining printing and copying machines. 

BRCC also is embracing fiscal conservatism. School policy now calls for limited travel, professional development and other costs that don’t affect students directly.  To avoid layoffs, it’s managing budget cuts through attrition.

“We’ve been fairly successful with that strategy, but it has increased pressure on existing employees and has resulted in some resource imbalance,” Downey says. “As a result, the college is currently going through some reorganization that we anticipate will provide more balanced human resource allocation as well as save money down the road.”

Other schools are financing growth through the use of more adjunct faculty, including Western Virginia, Germanna and Tidewater community colleges. “That’s very cost-effective versus the investment made in a full-time faculty member,” says DiCroce. “Now, can we do that indefinitely? No. Can we do it in the context of these times? Yes.”

DiCroce notes that the recent recession and the demands put on the community college system are likely to mark a permanent change in its place within the higher education strata. “We’ve all been in survival mode to get through this, and we’re facing growth and financial pressures ahead of us, but we need to take a breath and look at the future of community colleges in this state, what their role is and how they ought to be funded,” she says. “One could make the argument that as we’re seeing this evolution in demand and role, this is the best time to do that.”

Many young people see the reasoning behind starting in community colleges, in ways that they wouldn’t have even a few years ago. Banker, now almost finished with his first year at Tidewater Community College, senses a subtle shift in attitude among his own generation.

“I think this economy has changed how people think about money,” says Banker. “They’re more money savvy … If they can get farther in their education by going to community college and living at home for a while and maybe even getting a job first to keep from taking on too much debt, then most people will see that as a smart financial move.”

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