Education's Rising Tide

Amid Recession, Area Community Colleges Swell With New High School Graduates And Workers Looking To Retrain

August 16, 2009|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,childs.walker@baltsun.com

Kathy Lilley sees her academic counseling office at the Community College of Baltimore County as almost like the front desk in a hospital emergency room.

A middle-age truck driver looking to become an apprentice electrician might be followed by a 20-year-old unsure how to translate academic skills into a paying career. No matter what the problem, Lilley's staff tries to find a solution within the college's catalog of courses and job-training programs. With the recession wiping out thousands of careers, their advice has never been more in demand.

"They really come in and tell us their life stories," said Lilley, whose office at the Catonsville campus saw 3,966 students in July. "And as a counselor, you're basically triaging their needs."

Lilley's staff is among those facing a surge of students entering Baltimore-area community colleges.

At the Community College of Baltimore County, fall enrollment is expected to be 20 percent higher than last year. At community colleges in Howard, Anne Arundel, Harford and Carroll counties, enrollment is projected to rise 10 percent to 12 percent over last fall, and health care training programs are relegating hundreds of applicants to waiting lists. Baltimore City Community College officials did not return phone calls seeking enrollment data.

Community colleges appeal to several populations of students in difficult financial times. At less than one-third the cost of the state's public universities and less than 10 percent of the cost of many private colleges, they're a bargain for families of recent high school graduates. But they also offer a plethora of job-training programs for older people looking to make career changes. Last month, President Barack Obama announced a $12 billion funding initiative for community colleges, noting their role in helping workers adapt to a changing economy.

"Our time has come," said Sandra Kurtinitis, president of the Community College of Baltimore County. "From the president on down, we're seeing a recognition of the many roles we play in educating the nation. It feels good."

Students said community college now seems a sensible option for excellent high school performers, something that might not have been true before.

"A lot of my friends were, like me, pretty good students in high school, and they're going to community college because it's a whole lot cheaper," said Jordan Stackhouse, a 2009 graduate of Polytechnic Institute who will attend CCBC-Essex. "They feel like they can still get a pretty good education."

Increases in young and full-time students indicate that more recent high school graduates are choosing community colleges over four-year universities, said Barbara Greenfeld, vice president of enrollment at Howard Community College, where the student body has grown by nearly 50 percent this decade. And the recession has made students more practical, she added.

"They'll say, 'I was going to major in art, but now I'm going to major in nursing,' " Greenfeld said. "I'm hearing more students who feel they should pick a career."

Though community college officials say they're excited about all the new students, the boom has produced plenty of difficulties. The same recession that has sent students searching for a less expensive education has forced the tightening of state and county budgets. That means community colleges are trying to serve more people without much capacity to add faculty, expand cafeterias or pave new parking lots.

"Where do you park them? Where do you feed them?" asked Kurtinitis, whose $178 million budget was cut by $1 million for 2010. "It puts a strain on an institution, but it's also a chance for us to be creative."

Officials say they'll strive to put students in the courses they need but perhaps not at the times they covet. Classes that were once offered between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. weekdays will be held at 7 a.m., 4 p.m. or, in some cases, on Sundays. Basements and locker rooms that haven't been used regularly in years will become classrooms.

At CCBC, staff members are encouraged to turn off unused computers and eat cheaper meals when traveling to conferences. The heat was turned off over winter break. Departmental budgets have shrunk 2 percent across the board. Such trims have allowed the college to avoid cutting programs or denying places to students, Kurtinitis said.

"What we won't do is close our doors to anyone," she said. "That's important to us as a community college."

Wide-open admissions policies have long been a given at community colleges, which still face snobbery from those who view them as repositories for students who couldn't hack it in high school. But in California and Florida, a combination of budget shortfalls and surging demand has forced community colleges to turn away thousands.

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