In North Carolina, two-year colleges have taken in a vast number of laid-off workers in the last decade. The number of unemployed students in North Carolina's 58 community colleges rose from 40,000 in 1999 to 109,917 in 2004-nearly 175 percent. As the state's manufacturing jobs have dwindled, community colleges have provided much-needed next stops for many people.
The enrollment growth in North Carolina is not peculiar; many systems are taking in thousands of new students each year. Between 1965 and 2001, enrollment at community colleges nationally grew by about 433 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Though such growth is awe-inspiring, the resources required to handle it can be shocking.
"The state legislatures simply think that the community colleges can do what the four-year schools can do, but cheaper," says James Jacobs, associate director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College and director for workforce development and policy at McComb Community College (Mich.).
Some locales, such as metropolitan Phoenix, are seeing more striking growth than others. And enrollment is not rising at every school. But the picture of two-year colleges with increasing amounts of students is prevalent. "Most states reward community colleges on some formulas generated around enrollment," notes Jacobs. "The more students you have, the more potential money you have."
Enrollment growth can be a boon to a college-or a bust if not handled well. Two-year schools are finding several ways to handle the influx.
In the northeastern corner of Wisconsin, a state that has experienced its own share of job cuts, one community college district is feeling a bit full: Its enrollment of full-time students has expanded by 37 percent -to nearly 6,000-since 2001.
What's a growing district to do? "The way we deal with that is by making use of time and space," says H. Jeffrey Rafn, president of Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, which encompasses three campuses and five regional centers.
Administrators at NWTC have examined course schedules to give students the ability to finish degrees entirely during evening or weekend hours. They have also put a greater load on the summer schedule, and boosted online options.
NWTC even took the dramatic step of offering a program in the middle of the night. Dislocated workers (people who lost their jobs because either a plant closed or downsized) could meet for class between the hours of 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., then work or interview for jobs during the day. "We're trying to use as many hours of the day as we can," says Rafn.
Sharing facilities with other colleges, K-12 districts, or community organizations can also help. "Community colleges have learned to partner in major construction programs with local entities, which does two things," says Jacobs of the Community College Research Center. "It embeds the college in the community, and it saves money."
Tight state support has forced some administrators to examine productivity and seek out creative solutions to enrollment growth. "We've had to be very vigorous in eliminating programs that are outdated or don't have substantial enrollments," notes Rafn. "We really work on those productivity issues, both on the operational side and the learning side, which has allowed us to keep our cost increases down."
NWTC took its eight programs in manufacturing and streamlined them into one technology center, where students can complete lab work at their own pace and instructors are present at all times. Class lectures can be attended in person but are also recorded onto DVD.
The shift has proven popular and affordable. Before the implementation two years ago, NWTC's manufacturing programs had 960 registrants; enrollment has since reached around 1,500. The number of faculty has been reduced from 17 to 11.
Enrollment growth has placed great strains on already stretched-thin resources and employees. Technology, while not a panacea, can provide support.
Many community colleges are upgrading records systems to handle XML, a modernized version of the transcript standard, according to Graham Tracey, product manager of Enrollment Management and Student Services at Datatel, the information management solutions company. "A lot of community colleges are very interested in getting systems in place to handle that standard because it will greatly ease the process of enrolling and then transferring out [students]," says Tracey.
Northern Virginia Community College, or NOVA, recently implemented a full suite of admissions and registration technologies. The district created a single back office so all financial aid, record-keeping, and transcript evaluation can be done there instead of at each of six campuses, according to President Robert Templin.
The Indianapolis region of Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana recently launched a CRM system from Microsoft to support admissions. Officials can easily keep in touch with students who have expressed interest in Ivy Tech. "It's very personal," says Rich Huss, director of Computing and Technology Services. "Students are used to IM, text messages-they want their information right now."
Handling burgeoning student populations isn't just about streamlining processes. It's also about ensuring that students have positive experiences.
Marty Christofferson, director of Information Technology at Tompkins Cortland Community College (N.Y.), has come up with an idea for stellar service. The idea came to Christofferson while he was using his Treo smartphone to check the weather during snowmobiling excursions. He realized students have their own gadgets, from cell phones to PDAs to some combination of the two.
Back at work he and other employees created MobilIQ, a way to deliver the college's online services system, IQ.Web, to mobile devices. (IQ.Web, from SunGard Higher Education, allows students to register, get grades, check course schedules, and pay bills online, among other functions.)
Such ease of use is helpful for growing community colleges that serve varied audiences. Says Christofferson, "We have a lot of single parents. We have a lot of commuters. We have a lot of younger students working. Making information accessible to them is key. They can't spend a lot of extra time on campus."
Distance learning has also helped community colleges manage growth while giving students what they want. Snead State Community College in northern Alabama has taken advantage of online education to expand enrollment but keep costs under control. Online materials and lectures allow instructors to connect with students while not having to secure much-if any-classroom space.
Using WebCT as its web course tool and Tegrity to stream video, the college offers students 40 degrees either entirely online or in a blended online/in-person format. Three years ago a typical semester had 1,600 students, according to Dean of Academic Services Greg Chapman. This past fall nearly 2,200 students enrolled.
Some experts and administrators warn that although technology frees up resources, smart growth should take myriad plans and possibilities into account.
Students still need face-to-face interaction to talk about goals and plans. And staff must receive training and support to use new systems. "What we've found in our research is that the higher-performing community colleges are the ones that have made investments in support services to help students find their way, particularly first-generation college students," says Jacobs. "It's much more difficult to expand intelligently in a sustainable way."
Templin of NOVA has encountered this challenge. Online registration has become so popular that many students experience what has been dubbed the "Shoot Out": They log on after midnight on the first day of registration and hope to beat out thousands of other people getting on the system.
Advising, too, has its twists and turns, says Templin. "If students are online, you don't want them to make a trip [to campus] always. On the other hand, you don't want them to lose the advising. It comes with a whole new set of questions and complications."