- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 2, 2009

At Boston’s Bunker Hill Community College, students and professors will be burning the midnight oil. Literally.

Starting this fall, students have the option of enrolling in entry-level English and psychology classes that will be offered by Massachusetts’ largest community college from 11:45 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. So far, the reception for the wee-hour courses has been good, allowing those nontraditional and working students to get the classes they need and fit them into a demanding schedule.

“We’ve got a lot of night owls,” jokes Bunker Hill spokeswoman Colleen Roach. “And we’re offering free coffee.”

Adds instructor Wick Sloane, who volunteered along with professor Kathleen O’Neill to teach the late-night sessions: “I’ll wait until the weekend to crash. It’s going to be like pulling an all-nighter, but I’ll expect these students to come ready and excited to learn.”

Across the country, the nation’s 1,195 community colleges are seeing a spike in enrollment, owing in no small part to the sagging economy. Families and students who once thought a four-year residential college was a certain - and affordable - option have been forced in the recession to consider two-year schools as a more frugal way to enter higher education.

“Community colleges have always been a good value, and right now that is particularly so because people are accounting for their dollars very closely,” says Norma Kent, spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.-based American Association of Community Colleges.

“Historically, when the economy is down, enrollment tends to go up. But because this downturn has been so protracted and so dramatic, our enrollments are extremely high, and that is likely to continue for some time,” she said.

Initial reports from member schools have shown enrollment increases from 4 percent to 26 percent over the last year, she said.

Community colleges nationwide enrolled 11.5 million students, about 46 percent of all U.S. undergraduates, according to the most recent national AACC figures from January 2008. Average yearly tuition and fees at public community colleges for the 2007-08 academic year totaled $2,361, compared with $6,185 at four-year public universities and $23,172 at private four-year schools.

“For many people, they are the best hope and for some, the only hope,” said Ms. Kent, noting that many schools are going the distance to make room for the influx of new students by increasing class sizes, hiring more instructors, partnering with local businesses for support and even offering late-night classes to take up the slack.

At Coastal Carolina Community College in Jacksonville, N.C., the line to register for fall classes began at 7:15 a.m. last week, before the start of business hours, and quickly spilled out around the side of the building as students rose early and raced to get coveted slots.

Colette B. Teachey, executive director of the school’s foundation and its spokeswoman, said the student count at Coastal Carolina, which serves a large number of military families because of its proximity to such military sites as Marine Corps base Camp Lejeune, has risen from 6,559 students in the 2007-08 school year to 7,109 in 2008-09. Also on the upswing: 33 percent more students there are receiving financial aid this year.

“It’s been rocking and rolling for the past month,” she said of enrollment growth, which she said makes the school more competitive for serious students.

“Like many community colleges, we have an open-door policy,” she said. “We are facing very real financial challenges, but I think community colleges are best situated and motivated to meet those challenges. We’ve always operated on a shoestring budget.”

Acknowledging that state support for higher education is diminishing despite the need to retrain the work force for a new generations of jobs, President Obama last month announced a $12 billion aid package geared to bolstering the economy by allowing more people to seek a community college education.

He made the announcement in Warren, Mich., ground zero for the sagging U.S. auto industry and a state where unemployment tops 14 percent.

Under his “American Graduation Initiative,” which community college officials tout as deeply welcome amid heightened demand, schools would be allowed to compete for grants to bolster new programs along with training and counseling.

Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and an English professor at Northern Virginia Community College, helped the administration’s push, penning an editorial column in support of the president’s goal of adding 5 million community college graduates by 2020.

Noting that she has taught for 28 years, Mrs. Biden said community college fills gaps for immigrants needing English skills, for tradespeople needing skill certifications and for those students not ready after high school to complete a college degree program.

“I don’t have to look any further than my classroom to see the power of these colleges to change lives,” she wrote. “My students enter the classroom from many different educational, economic and cultural backgrounds, and the community college system puts them on the same path of opportunity.”

Nationwide, 59 percent of nurses and a majority of other new health care workers get educated at community colleges, along with about 80 percent of firefighters, law enforcement officers and emergency medical technicians, according to AACC research through January 2008.

While some critics have given community colleges a stigma as a lowest-common-denominator for those who can’t cut it academically at a four-year program, administrators defend their students as hard-working and motivated, and their programs as comprehensive, rigorous and a boon to employers seeking trained workers with updated skills.

Some note that with the glut in doctoral-degree candidates around the nation, many community college classes are taught by experienced instructors with Ph.D.s, offering quality teaching along with more personalized instruction.

“These are students who are really fighting for their educations - they want to learn,” said Mr. Sloane, who will teach late-night English at Bunker Hill in the fall. “They have families, jobs, 40-hour-plus workweeks, and long commutes. And I think this issue of access and time to learn is a crisis for our students. We have to do whatever we have to do to help them.”

Terry Hartle, senior vice president of governmental affairs at the American Council on Education in Washington, which represents the nation’s four-year schools, lauded community colleges’ role in not only preparing students with technical training but getting them ready for four-year academic programs.

“Community colleges have long been one of the best-kept secrets in higher education,” he said. “In an economic downturn, Americans find these institutions with their low tuition and no-frills focus even more interesting.

“These are distinctly American institutions,” he added. “There is nothing like them anywhere else in the world.”

At Northern Virginia Community College, George Gabriel, the school’s vice president of institutional research, planning and assessment, said enrollment rose by 8.5 percent this spring.

The school, one of the nation’s largest community colleges, began an aggressive print and broadcast ad campaign about four months ago that is helping to draw in new students this fall. As of Wednesday, he said, fall registration was up 12.8 percent over the same period in 2008 and he expected it to climb to 15 percent when classes begin later this summer.

“It’s very high growth,” he said, noting that enrollment is projected to hit 72,000 this year.

One reason for the interest, in a down economy, is the school’s guaranteed admissions agreement with four-year state schools across the state, he said. Students who attend NOVA the first two years and maintain a high grade-point average can attend top schools, including the University of Virginia, among others, while paying just half the tuition of a four-year school for the first two years.

The university has also stepped up recruitment efforts at high schools in the Northern Virginia area, sending out postcards and having the school’s student ambassadors make calls to those prospective students who have applied but not yet registered for the fall term.

Also recruiting are officials at the University of the District of Columbia, who are starting a new community college program, to be taught initially in five city wards.

UDC President Allen Sessoms said that while the District is filled with expensive private schools, his new Community College of UDC program, starting classes Aug. 26, will fill the gap between “have” and “have-not” for those prospective students who want a foot in the door of higher education, but who could not afford the $40,000-plus annual tuition at some of the area’s top schools.

Cost for the UDC program for tuition and fees is $3,000 per year - for both in-state and out-of-state students - making it a value for work force development and other academic programs and a help to local businesses who must employ local residents but see a dearth of people who are well-trained, Mr. Sessoms said.

“The community college will serve a tremendous social need,” he said.

“We can focus resources and talents at the community college and the four-year university without having confusion about the university’s mission. The faculty has embraced it, along with the business community and the body politic.

“We are meeting a need that people are hungering to have met,” he added. “Washington is a tale of two cities. Forty-seven percent has a bachelor’s degree or higher … and 37 percent is structurally and functionally illiterate. The education system has not met the needs of the population here. The community college is going to be the bridge.”

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