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College classes cut for lack of space, teachers

More students are enrolling in the state’s community colleges to learn new skills or polish up old ones as the economy continues to sputter.

But they’re finding certain courses aren’t available due to a lack of qualified instructors or classroom space.

CCCOnline, the online network of the state’s community college course offerings, had to cap enrollment in more than 80 courses in art, biology, chemistry, English, math, literature, philosophy and psychology. The network has been unable to find enough adjunct faculty trained in online teaching methods to fill additional course sections.

The Community College of Denver, which experienced a 33 percent enrollment spike this year, could not offer 51 course sections it wanted to due to a lack of space. The Metropolitan State College of Denver could not staff all its sections because it couldn’t find the teachers it needed. Red Rocks Community College couldn’t offer all its science classes due to a dearth of laboratory space.

“Our enrollment for spring over spring is up 19 percent,” Colorado Community College System President Nancy McCallin said. “It has been a challenge when we’ve got decreased state funding to sustain educational opportunity.”

Biggest challenges online

McCallin said the challenges are especially great in the world of online course offerings since faculty members need to be specifically trained in digital teaching methods. For some faculty, it’s a challenge not working with students face-to-face.

“We have been cutting off sections in cases where we haven’t had qualified professors,” she said. “In an online environment, you have them go through specialized training. If, all of a sudden, the growth in students is greater than expected, we aren’t going to be ready.”

The community college system is cranking up the pace of training programs for instructors of online courses so the schools are ready for the student onslaught next fall.

There are now 85,547 students taking at least one course at a community college in the system, though only 25,227 students taking the equivalent of a full course load. Still, the growth has been dramatic.

While it may be difficult to find properly trained online instructors, McCallin said the overall quality of adjuncts available for hire is top-notch thanks to the economic meltdown, which bumped talented professionals out of work and into the classroom.

“You can get some really high quality people who otherwise would not be available to teach within your classes,” she said.

Stats on adjuncts

About half of the community college system’s courses are taught by part-time – or adjunct – faculty who make up 67 percent of the system’s teaching staff. They’re generally cheap, easy to shuffle and bring valuable real-world experience to the classroom.

Nationwide, some experts estimate two-thirds of all college faculty are adjuncts. After a major surge in the hiring of part-time faculty, colleges are focusing again on hiring of full-time, tenure-track faculty – or at least they’re talking about it. Studies have shown that colleges are better able to retain students when they have a solid connection with tenured faculty who have office hours and time to chat with students.

McCallin said the community college system was focusing on hiring more full-time faculty – until the last round of budget cuts.

“With the cuts in state funding,” she said, “we have not been able to do that.”

The Metropolitan State College of Denver, which is not a community college but still relies heavily on adjuncts as a four-year undergraduate institution, is continuing a push started by President Stephen Jordan to hire more full-time, tenure-track faculty after about a decade of the widespread hiring of adjuncts.

Metro is hiring between 25 and 40 tenure-track faculty each year, many of whom are replacing retired faculty or visiting scholars, said Provost Vicki Golich.

Still, adjuncts continue to play a vital role at Metro, Golich said. Metro currently has about 500 full-time professors and 600 part-time faculty.

Golich said it has been a mad scramble to hire enough people to fill an increasing number of course sections, and not all of them got filled this year.

“We were surprised a little bit by order of magnitude by the (enrollment) increase,” she said. “At the end of the day, I think we did not staff everything we would have liked to.”

Golich said she hopes the adjunct hiring process goes more smoothly next year when a hard and fast student application deadline is imposed.

“That is going to give us the ability to really be able to do a little more careful planning in a timely fashion,” she said. “Hopefully, some of that last-minute scurrying should be minimal in the future.”

Red Rocks runs out of space

At Red Rocks Community College and the Community College of Denver, the issue has been more about space limitations than the adjunct pool – at least at the bricks-and-mortar level.

“We could probably teach science classes up the yin yang,” Red Rocks President Michele Haney said. “It’s not an issue of faculty. We don’t have the space or a time that a classroom is available to offer that section.”

Haney agreed that staffing for online courses is a different story and is not keeping pace with burgeoning student demand.

Diana Doyle, executive vice president for learning and student affairs at CCD, said the school is not noticing any new trends with adjunct faculty. The same areas that have always been hard to staff are still tough, such as nursing.

“They’re usually working in a hospital or health care facility,” she said. “They get paid more at those facilities than they do on campus. (And to teach) they have to be master’s prepared.”

As far as the general pool of adjunct instructors is concerned, Doyle said more adjuncts are teaching a full course load – or 12 credits – this semester.

“I will say we have maxed out our course numbers with our adjunct instructors,” she said. “More are teaching a full adjunct load than ever before.”

Colorado Mountain College, which offers two-year academic programs in 11 mostly mountainous locations such as Aspen, Breckenridge, Dillon and Steamboat Springs, is experiencing the most growth in its online offerings.

The number of students enrolled in online programs increased 39.5 percent from 1,115 last spring to 1,414 this year. So far, it hasn’t been too difficult to hire teachers, college spokeswoman Debbie Crawford said.

The campuses in ski towns, meanwhile, have built-in, highly qualified adjuncts: retirees with big degrees and impressive professional resumes from all over the country. And some of the colleges are finding it easier to find adjuncts in the current economic climate.

There is an abundance of unemployed people in construction, for instance, who are now available to pick up a few classes to teach, Crawford said. The overall number of adjunct faculty at Colorado Mountain College campuses increased 11.8 percent between fall 2008 and fall 2009, from 703 to 786.

“Some campuses are finding it easier to find specific adjunct faculty,” Crawford said.

Julie Poppen can be reached at jpoppen@ednewscolorado.org.

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