One of the largest U.S. community colleges has expanded course offerings and operating hours to accommodate a flood of new students, but cash-strapped state governments have forced other two-year colleges to slash class sections, even as student applications pour in at an unprecedented clip.

Bringing weekend classes to Portland Community College’s four campuses in 2007 has paid dividends this year as the economic downturn has spurred a 21-percent enrollment jump. Underemployed and newly unemployed adults are hoping to bolster their resumes in the coming years, and the college’s class sections on Friday nights, Saturdays, and Sundays fit adults’ busy schedules.

“We just want to be as flexible as possible for people coming back to school,” said Dana Haynes, public affairs manager for Portland Community College, where officials have seen a spike in the number of nursing, welding, and teaching students. “For the working student, it’s become very popular.”

Miami Dade Community College, among the largest nationwide, won’t increase its number of class sections–and in some cases, has trimmed back the number of sections–as state funding has dwindled by 11 percent despite the steady increase in students seeking training during a recession.

The massive jump in demand was evident June 18, when thousands of students logged into the college’s web site to register for fall courses in the first minutes of availability. Most of the 20,000 students were turned away or received error messages because the site’s capacity was quickly reached. More than 500 classes were filled within 12 hours of opening class registration. The college projects that 30,000 students will not be able to take classes they need.

“It will delay their degree attainment and ultimately their entry into the workforce,” said Juan Mendieta, a spokesman for Miami Dade Community College, which has eight campuses, 164,000 students, and more than 2,000 faculty members.

Miami Dade Community College funding has dropped 18 percent since 2006, and to avoid more course cutbacks, a college memo spells out ways the college can remain viable.

“While we have made every effort to minimize the impact on faculty and staff, obviously, there are no painless remedies that involve jobs or compensation,” according to the March 28 memo sent by Miami Dade President Eduardo J. Padron.

“Our priority is clear: we need to protect our core mission of teaching and providing essential services to students. To do so, it’s important to resist the temptation to simply cut across the board. Such a strategy would surely invite mediocrity in the most essential aspects of our mission.”

Eighty-six vacant positions were eliminated, saving $4.4 million, and 111 employees were laid off–resulting in a savings of $7.2 million. There were also cutbacks in overtime availability, a freeze on all employee travel, and other, less-severe reductions were instituted as well.

“We have been forced to the last resort of losing people who are valuable members of our community and drawing our belts tighter yet with regard to program operation,” Padron wrote.

A convergence of factors, Mendieta said, worsened the already severe enrollment crunch two-year colleges have seen since last year.

“We’re living in an era where the economy is not doing well, which drives students back to community colleges, and it’s also a time when the traditional four-year universities are capping their enrollment, which also brings people to community colleges,” he said. “Those things are driving people back to us.”

Enrollment was climbing in two-year colleges well before the recession cost millions of Americans their jobs over the past year. The U.S. Education Department reported a 10 percent enrollment increase in community colleges from 2000 to 2006. Enrollment in web-based college courses has also risen alongside traditional campus-based classes.

The study, “Staying the Course: Online Education in the United States, 2008,” published by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation last year, said 22 percent of American college students, or 3.94 million students, took at least one web-based class in the fall 2007 semester. That marked an increase of 12.9 percent from the fall 2006 semester. During the same period, overall higher-education enrollment increased by only 1.2 percent, according to the report, which surveyed officials from more than 2,500 colleges and universities.

The jump in online enrollment from 2006 to 2007 is just part of a steady increase in web-based classes this decade. In fall 2002–the Sloan Foundation report’s first year–1.6 million students were taking at least one online class, meaning 9 percent of college students were taking online classes. That number exceeded 2 million in 2004 and topped 3 million in 2005.

“Every year, we think it will level out, and it hasn’t done so quite yet,” said Jeff Seaman, co-author of the Sloan report. “At some point, the demand is going to be met and [enrollment numbers] will meet some sort of steady state.”

While colleges like Miami Dade slash budgets to stay afloat, institutions like Maricopa Community Colleges–a system of 10 campuses and 250,000 students in Arizona–is preparing to meet the rising demand. Maricopa saw a 5 percent enrollment increase in the spring 2009 semester–compared to the fall 2008 semester–and projects a double-digit percentage rise for the school year that starts in August.

“And we can accommodate that, facilities-wise,” said Charles Reinebold, a Maricopa spokesman. “We know…that when the economy tanks, we see increases. …People get laid off, and they look for new ways to train themselves.”

Reinebold said Maricopa did not plan on opening nighttime courses like Portland Community College, but rather intends to hire more adjunct faculty if more sections are needed for some of the most popular classes.

Links:

Miami Dade Community College

Maricopa Community Colleges

Portland Community College