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Community colleges struggle with enrollment explosion

Also see sidebar on Community College of Denver’s record enrollment.

The record-breaking enrollment surge at Colorado’s public community colleges and four-year schools could be too much of a good thing, college leaders fear.

While big student numbers translate into additional tuition revenue, state funding has fallen short and many of the colleges are struggling to find the space and instructors necessary to provide high-quality education for the many new faces on campus. Unprecedented growth in online coursework helps somewhat, but it takes time and resources to train faculty to teach remotely.

“For the first time ever, we had to cut off sections because of a lack of qualified professors,” said Nancy McCallin, president of the Colorado Community College System, which includes 13 schools.

In some ways, the timing couldn’t be worse.

“This strong growth happened at a time when state funding is plummeting,” McCallin said. “We are really having difficulty in terms of the financial side of the house.”

Head count is up 17.4 systemwide this fall, on top of a 7.2 percent enrollment increase one year ago. Students are also taking more courses, which has resulted in the number of full-time equivalent students climbing 19.3 percent.

As of Nov. 2, the system head count was 82,981 – up from the official head count of 71,825 recorded Sept. 9.

The schools with the most dramatic gains are in more populated Front Range areas. The Community College of Denver is among the top three community colleges in the nation in terms of enrollment growth. The number of enrolled students grew a stunning 32.6 percent this fall over last.

“When the economy is in recession typically we see strong growth in our enrollment,” McCallin said. “People come to us to get qualifications for different jobs — to retrain.”

Enrollment growth is also strong among students right out of high school, however. An increasing number of high school graduates are choosing to take basic coursework at a community college rather than going directly into a much more expensive university setting.

Last year, growth at the state’s community colleges accounted for 75 percent of all enrollment growth in Colorado’s higher education system, McCallin said.

Show me the money

The problem is that state dollars don’t necessarily follow the students since budgets are set in the spring and rely upon enrollment projections that often fall short. Add to that the massive cuts to higher education that seem to be announced every other week.

Last spring, the cuts to higher ed totaled $106 million. Then came an $80 million cut. And finally, another $145 million for a total 53 percent cut to higher education.

Federal stimulus dollars are helping fill the hole for now – but those dollars evaporate next year. There’s another problem with the federal cash: It isn’t linked to enrollment growth.

Meanwhile, the College Opportunity Fund, a voucher program enacted by former Gov. Bill Owens, once offered students $92 in state funding per credit hour. It’s now at $62 per credit hour. And there is no money available to provide opportunity fund dollars to the students still showing up on community college campuses to sign up for courses, said John Karakoulakis, director of legislative affairs for the state’s Department of Higher Education.

“There’s never enough money to give supplementals,” Karakoulakis said. “Nor are schools penalized for not gaining enrollment.”

What started out as an attempt to inject market-driven carrots and sticks into the state’s funding equation for higher education hasn’t really worked out that way, observers say.

So, while schools scramble to use every inch of space during night-time and weekend hours, and to hire more part-time faculty, they are still dealing with hiring freezes, bigger class sizes and program cuts.

While adjunct faculty bring key real-world experience to the classroom, studies have found that full-time faculty are essential to keeping students from dropping out. Seventy percent of the community college system’s faculty are part-time.

Colleges jam in students

Front Range President Andy Dorsey said his campuses have 2,700 more students this fall.

“We’ve never seen that kind of growth at least in the last 20 years,” Dorsey said. “We also haven’t seen a major recession here in a long time.”

More than 18,000 students now attend Front Range, but Dorsey said he expects that number to grow to a record 28,000 throughout the academic year. Despite the growth, Front Range is living with the same amount of state and federal funding for the past three years.

“We’re grown enrollment in the last two years without adding a significant number of staff except for part-time faculty. We’re running almost all courses near capacity. The Larimer campus may be one of the best-utilized academic facilities in the state. That campus has well over 85 percent of all seats on campus filled from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.”

Some Front Range courses are evening being taught on the other end of town in a Regis University facility.

“Our biggest issue in terms of future growth will likely be parking. We will max out parking if we have significant growth next year.”

Dorsey said his stomach clenched when he pondered a 9 percent tuition increase this year. Then he realized there was not choice but to put the burden on students, or face the kind of cuts that could gut programs. In fact, he said, Front Range – and all the community colleges – are almost there.

“We are at the point where we’re cutting into programs that make a difference to students.”

If the money continues to be cut and student numbers grow, access will become an issue, he said. Schools won’t turn prospective students away – but program cuts will.

“It will not be without significant consequences for students — first generation students, students who need education the most,” he said. “I don’t think we can sustain that long-term.”

Still, Dorsey knows more cuts are coming. He doesn’t see any tax increase to support higher education in the near future based upon Election Day results and the general, money-clenching mood of voters.

“We’re going to have to adapt to that,” he said. “I hope the Legislature will find ways to ameliorate those cuts by looking at tax incentives and trying to generate other sources of revenue.”

Some schools celebrate

For schools with a little more space, such as the Community College of Aurora, the enrollment boom is a gift.

We love it; bring it on,” college spokeswoman Liz VanLandingham said. “We’re not hurting at all this year. We still have space.”

VanLandingham said the school streamlined its enrollment services functions so students no longer have to wait in long lines. And the parking lot has been expanded.

(Community colleges) provide good opportunities for people who are looking for ways to survive in a challenging economy,” VanLandingham said. “They don’t have to give up their dreams to go to college.”

Pueblo Community College spokesman Gary Franchi agreed that “it’s a great time to be in college.” But Pueblo doesn’t have the space that Aurora has, he said, noting that the campus room scheduler “has earned her pay” this year.

“We’re trying to get faculty to give up bigger spaces if class sizes are small,” he said, adding that the school is also pushing online courses.

“A lot of students are afraid of online classes,” he said. “We’re trying to get more students to take them.”

The campus goes so far as to give students loaner laptops in one lecture hall course as a way to train them, along with the instructor, on how to handle on-line instruction.

“They’re doing a combination of instructor stuff and online stuff while the instructor is in there for the first month or three weeks of the semester. Then, if they want, they can go and take it online.”

Systemwide, enrollment in online courses is up 33 percent.

Four-year colleges grow too

The state’s four-year colleges are experiencing similar growth. Adams State College in Alamosa is at its highest enrollment ever with 3,369 undergraduates. That’s a 17.9 percent increase over last year’s numbers, campus spokeswoman Julie Waechter said.

“The dorms are absolutely maxed out, but that’s a good thing,” she said.

Mesa State College in Grand Junction has also set an enrollment record this fall. The small college now has more than 7,000 students, representing a roughly 15 percent increase over last year.

“Historically, when the economy is tough people tend to go back to college, but I also think the word is getting out about Mesa State – it’s a comparatively small school with small class sizes and quality educational programming,” campus spokeswoman Dana Nunn said. “You’re not going to be in a lecture hall with 400 students at Mesa State. We average 18 or 19 students in a class.”

“It’s a small enough campus that faculty and staff get to know the students on a first name basis. You have a name, not a number.”

Mesa State has also added new programs in response to workforce needs in areas such as health care and energy management.

“We’ve got a lot of good programs to support student success that are showing dividends in retention numbers,” Nunn said. “Between that and the quality that Mesa State offers, I’m saying we’re going to continue to grow.”

Good news/bad news

For all the campuses, it seems the enrollment surge is one of those good news/bad news scenarios.

“You’re glad that you’re here to help,” Red Rocks President Michele Haney said. “But, of course, I wish that with our increase came an increase in budget.”

When Colorado voters approved an expansion of legalized gambling one year ago, the deal was that the subsequent state tax revenues would support the state’s fledgling community colleges. When the economy tanked, so did dreams of a windfall from gaming tables and slots.

“We thought gambling money would be our salvation, but the money is not going to be there, either,” Haney said. “My biggest fear is that are we at the point where there will be no public access to higher education in the state of Colorado?”

Haney worries that schools will end up going private, which could result in significant tuition hikes.

“Will we have people say, ‘I can’t even afford a community college…’”

Reporter Julie Poppen can be reached at
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