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Enrollment Squeeze
Virginia's community colleges cope with increasing demand and a changing world

By Kay Mills
Annandale, Virginia

Before registration starts for classes at Northern Virginia Community College, nursing student Elizabeth Brooks of nearby Reston sets her clock for quarter to midnight. She turns on her computer, gets the screen ready, and then proceeds to "hope and pray nothing goes wrong." That's the only way she and thousands of other students have a chance to enroll in the classes they need.

This online registration "shootout," as Northern Virginia's president Robert Templin calls it, results from heavy enrollment pressure on classes that provide a pipeline to the programs students want. NVCC, with six campuses in the burgeoning Washington, D.C. suburbs, had 37,609 students last fall, up two percent from 2004. It faces a possible enrollment demand of more than 11,000 additional students by 2012.

At Tidewater Community College, in the Norfolk-Virginia Beach area, enrollment is expected to increase by more than 6,000 students by 2012. (Last fall's enrollment was 21,400.) Overall, state projections foresee 27 percent growth for Virginia's 23 community colleges, or 40,083 more students between last fall and 2012 in a system that already enrolls 146,472.

Meantime, the state's public four-year institutions are likely to add only 12,000 more undergraduates by 2012. Other growth states such as California, Florida and Texas are seeing similar trends even as state financial support often has failed to keep pace.

"We are all in similar boats-our boats are just a different color," said Glenn DuBois, chancellor of the Virginia Community College System. "I can't think of any state in which the leadership would say we have all the resources we need."

California's community college enrollment fell off slightly last fall from the 1.6 million attending in fall 2004, because the job market is better and because of the fallout from two tuition increases. However, Robert Turnage, the system's vice chancellor for fiscal policy, said, "We think that enrollment demand will come back." California community colleges expect to serve almost two million students by fall 2010, a 22 percent increase over fall 2004.

 
Until this year, Virginia "has simply not funded higher education in good times and definitely has not funded higher education in bad times," says Robert Templin, president of 37,000-student Northern Virginia Community College.
(Photo by Dennis Brack, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
Texas community colleges have added some 110,000 students since fall 2000, and enrollment now stands at about 558,000 students. Enrollment flattened some this year because the schools don't have the capacity to offer enough courses, and students either go elsewhere or nowhere, said Steve Johnson of the Texas Association of Community Colleges. The percentage of community colleges' revenue that the state provides has dropped from 60 percent in 1984 to 34 percent this year, Johnson said.

In Florida, enrollment growth at community colleges has averaged about 6.5 percent in recent years, although that, too, has leveled off because of some improvement in the economy and disruptions by hurricanes in 2004 and 2005. The state's 28-college system enrolled 800,036 last year, with 20 percent more students projected by 2010-11.

Nationwide, community college officials have been trying to convince policymakers that "we've got to invest in higher education, including the community colleges," said George Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges. "We have to wake up as a nation to the growing skills gap and the increasingly global economy," areas in which community colleges can fill many needs, Boggs said. But he doesn't think people understand what's at stake. "Sputnik alarmed us all, and the nation responded quickly, beefing up the math and science curriculum. We're now seeing a different kind of challenge, one that isn't as visible."

Elizabeth Brooks, the Northern Virginia Community College nursing student, is one of those affected by the enrollment squeeze in Virginia. Brooks, 49, who repairs high-speed photo and digital office equipment two days a week, wanted to start a career in nursing but needed several science courses to begin. "I didn't have the luxury of quitting my job to take the courses at the times I could get them," she said. She learned from fellow students how to play the registration game. "You also have to have all your records in good shape or you are in trouble at midnight," she said.

 
Elizabeth Brooks, a nursing student at Northern Virginia Community College, must register online at midnight to get the classes she needs to graduate.
(Photo by Dennis Brack, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
Last November's registration for the current semester was "very traumatic for some of the nursing students," Brooks said. Owing to some glitches, some people were not able to register at midnight; in another case, too many people were permitted to register for one class and had to accept leftovers. Although Brooks knows the system now, and stayed up until 2:30 am to register, she still had problems getting one class.

Part of the squeeze on classes stems from the deteriorated condition of the Annandale campus' science facilities. One side of the building may be too hot when the other side is freezing. "Our lab counters are old, worn, and often loose, and cabinets and sinks are deteriorating in many labs," said Annandale Provost Barbara Saperstone. "We have had places where mold was growing on the walls, but we have tried to get rid of it when we find it."

"Every single program requires some natural sciences," said Charlene Connolly, provost for Northern Virginia's three-year-old medical education campus in Springfield, just south of the Washington Beltway. "That is our bottleneck. Anything with a lab is limited." And these courses fill up at five minutes after midnight.

Many Virginia community colleges were built in the 1960s; now they need renovation, partly because they are old and partly because the students using them have changed. "The traditional view is that it is older students who are at community colleges-they go to class and go home," Saperstone said. "Now we have younger students, who are staying longer on campus, looking for a place where they feel comfortable," she said, adding that colleges need to develop student lounges and other areas where students can work on laptops or meet between classes. Now when it rains, students come inside but often have to line the halls, where it's noisy, especially with cell phones ringing.

State voters passed an $845.9 million higher education general obligation bond issue in 2002, with $159.4 million earmarked for community college construction and renovations. But that money has made only a dent, and campuses are already facing overruns because of rising construction costs. The State Council on Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) estimated during the last biennium that $21 million should be spent in each two-year period over the next ten years to address community colleges' deferred maintenance needs. Because this biennium's spending fell short of that, SCHEV is recommending $34.7 million for community college repairs through 2008.

Higher education spending in Virginia has been on a roller coaster for the last 15 years. In the 1990s the bottom fell out of the economy. "For two years all we did was budget cuts," said Karen Petersen, executive vice chancellor of the community college system and a former state education secretary. "By 2000 the General Assembly understood that higher education was in disarray" and created a joint legislative committee that established what it called budget "base adequacy guidelines" that were largely enrollment driven. "The guidelines indicated that community colleges were poorly funded."

The early 2000s brought two more years of funding cuts and tuition increases. With tuition going up at four-year institutions, and with these schools limiting their enrollments, students turned to community colleges. "We serve 60 percent of the state's undergraduates," Petersen said. "We've grown the size of a University of Virginia or Virginia Tech in the last ten years," and "we've done it with no increase in full-time faculty."

Virginia's community colleges compete for state support with K-12 education, Medicaid and transportation. SCHEV recommended increasing spending on community colleges during the next biennium by $136.3 million from the general fund, or 42 percent, and by $222.3 million from all sources. The main reason for the proposed larger-than-average increase is an attempt to hire more full-time faculty.

Virginia Governor Mark Warner, limited by law to one term, submitted his last budget before leaving office in January. Warner called for spending $385.7 million on community colleges in FY 2007, and $392.9 million in FY 2008 (increases of 18 and 20 percent respectively from the current fiscal year's appropriation). Warner also would increase funds for student financial aid by $3.1 million each year, and included money for new construction and renovations.

Warner had led a tax reform effort—some increases, some reductions—in 2004 that put more money into postsecondary education during his administration. Without those reforms, Warner said in an interview, the state was "in danger of dismantling one of the best higher education systems" in the nation.

 
Students work in a medical physical therapy lab on the Annandale campus of Northern Virginia Community College. Enrollment in labs like this has been limited by obsolete equipment and lack of funding.
(Photo by Dennis Brack, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
Warner presided over a restructuring of higher education in Virginia. Much of the public's attention focused on the unprecedented autonomy given to public four-year institutions. But from Chancellor DuBois' point of view, a key part of the restructuring is its emphasis on transfer agreements to smooth the path into four-year institutions for community college graduates. For example, Blue Ridge Community College, in Weyers Cave, now has a guaranteed transfer deal with James Madison University. Blue Ridge enrollment spiked 18 percent in one year, DuBois said. He hopes that by next fall all of the system's 23 community colleges will have transfer agreements with the state's public four-year institutions.

Under the restructuring legislation, SCHEV will assess how well the universities and community colleges meet goals such as increasing access to higher education, ensuring that it remains affordable, improving student retention, contributing to efforts to stimulate the state's economic development, and working to improve public schools. "Some of these are measures that favor the community colleges wonderfully well, such as (increasing) access," said Daniel LaVista, SCHEV's executive director. "You can shut your eyes and throw a dart at the map, and a community college is the largest provider there."

Lt. Governor Tim Kaine, also a Democrat, succeeds Warner, and he voiced support for the governor's education initiatives during the campaign last fall. Asked before the election whether he thought his successor would step up to the plate for higher education, Warner said, "This should be a no-brainer. Without a competitive higher education system, we won't do what we want."

But he added, "There are still legislators who are suspicious of higher education, who think money is frittered away in higher education. We need to more directly tie it to economic development and thus make it harder for someone to unwind." Warner said he wants to "make the case that the state needs to make this investment."

The budget Warner has proposed is "extremely determining of the final outcome, barring some catastrophic event," said Don Finley, executive director of the Virginia Business Higher Education Council and also a former state education secretary.

Virginia has a strong economy now, said Finley, whose organization consists of business leaders who support higher education. If that continues, "the money will be there and all of higher education should get respectable increases" from the state. "If we fall back to the average [revenue growth] of the last few years or go into a recession, then it won't be there."

"In the last 15 years," said President Templin of Northern Virginia Community College, "the state has simply not funded higher education in good times and definitely has not funded higher education in bad times, leaving us in bad shape." Enrollment has not grown appreciably in the last few years at Northern Virginia, but Templin said his campuses are expected to get one-fourth of the state's future community college enrollment growth.

Students at Virginia community colleges pay close to the national average—$2,191 for a full year—according to College Board figures. Courses cost $68 per credit hour, except at NVCC, where tuition has just gone up to $71. Its tuition will increase by another two to four percent a year through 2008-09 so the school can add faculty to cover increased enrollment and meet the higher costs of operating in the expensive Northern Virginia area. NVCC currently pays its faculty salaries that are not considered competitive with those of area public schools. This year its instructors with master's degrees and two years' experience earn $39,218, while local public school teachers with the same education and experience receive $47,150.

As for programs in areas that Templin sees as potentially driving the economy, he said that so far his college is doing "only token work" in the field of biotechnology and not nearly what it should with wireless technology. An existing program in network security "should be ten times the size that it is." In nanotechnology—that is, working with exceptionally small matter—the college is developing curriculum but is not yet offering classes.

Templin has other worries as well. "How do I provide thousands of new police, fire and healthcare people? We are not prepared for a national catastrophe, a terrorist attack, a pandemic," he said. "Who is going to be the first to detect a biological outbreak, the first to arrive at an attack? Who's going to take care of the people? [It will be] our graduates, but we are not putting out enough."

 
President John Cavan of Southside Virginia Community College (left), a former college basketball player, still practices with the Southside Virginia team.
(Photo by Tom Cogill for CrossTalk)
 
Some 170 miles south of Northern Virginia Community College lies the rural area known as Southside—old tobacco country that is losing population and jobs. "It's the forgotten portion of Virginia," said John Cavan, Southside Virginia Community College's president since 1983 and a former college basketball player who still practices with the Southside Virginia team. Cavan aggressively pursues programs for students in this ten-county region. "If we started programs and waited until we had money to do them, we wouldn't do them," he said.

Cavan especially touts a heavy equipment program in Blackstone, where SVCC operates one of several centers in addition to campuses in Alberta, Keysville and Emporia. Students learn diesel technology, motorcycle maintenance and truck driving in separate programs. It's a high-cost effort "but all the graduates get jobs immediately," said Cavan. A local construction firm has contracted with the college for training.

"A lot of community colleges across the country want to be like four-year institutions," Cavan said. "We're not afraid to get into the dirty-fingernail programs. I never say no to business or industry."

 
Vincent Brown (left) and Dwayne Tharp are instructors at a High Performance Manufacturing Training Center run by Southside Virginia Community College.
(Photo by Tom Cogill for CrossTalk)
 
The state has accepted modest enrollment growth at the University of Virginia and other public four-year schools, leaving community colleges to take up the slack, said David Breneman, dean of UVA's Curry School of Education. UVA or William and Mary can raise millions from alumni, but community colleges usually don't have the same resources. "To expect community colleges to thrive in a privatizing world is pretty naive," Breneman said.

But Frank Friedman, president of Charlottesville's Piedmont Virginia Community College, seems determined to try. "First, we have to cut expenditures somewhere," said Friedman, whose college enrolls 4,300 students and expects to have an additional 1,000 by 2012. "We look at programs that aren't fully enrolled, such as automotive technology, which we had to close. The higher demand now is in health sciences, engineering and computer sciences. Student support services suffer because they are non-revenue producing. I hate to sound like a businessman—I'm an educator—but that's the case."

Piedmont has upgraded its grants office and just received a $1.7 million, five-year grant under Title III of the Higher Education Act to strengthen the institution by restoring some of its support programs such as tutoring and career counseling. The school has expanded its private fundraising through the PVCC Education Foundation's campaign for Opportunity and Excellence. In October it announced an unrestricted $500,000 gift and has raised $11.2 million so far.

"Universities realized 30 years ago that they had to do something to help themselves, but community colleges came late to that understanding," said statewide Chancellor DuBois. His system now has a seven-point plan to double its collective holdings from $75 million to $150 million by 2009, principally to increase the colleges' capacity and to provide scholarship money.

Republican Senator John Chichester, chairman of the state Senate Finance Committee, worked with former Governor Warner to increase higher education funding. He said the state still needs the remedial work and the workforce training that the community colleges provide, in addition to preparing students for transfer to four-year institutions.

 
Virginia's 23 community colleges are expected to add more than 40,000 additional students by 2012, says Glenn DuBois, chancellor of the two-year college system.
(Photo by Dennis Brack, Black Star, for CrossTalk)
 
"All of these ingredients put pressure on community colleges," Chichester said. "They may have to take this hard look—none want to admit this—but they have limited space, fewer faculty, more adjunct faculty. They may get to the point that reluctantly they may have to delve into what applicants derive the greatest experience from going to college," those in academic programs or those in workforce training. They may have to reconsider the open-door policy, he said, before adding, "That's not a good idea—I'm the first to admit it."

But community colleges continue to be underfunded, Chichester said. "They are innovative enough to get the best educational bang for the buck. They do get extra from a dollar spent. We are closing in on the time we must either up the ante in the funding arena or take steps to curb enrollment."

Few people who arrive in the legislature as freshmen understand the tie between education and Virginia's economic development, Chichester said. Yet "every businessman and everyone who has to go to the marketplace for skilled workers understands the role of the community colleges."


Kay Mills, a former Los Angeles Times editorial writer, is the author of "Changing Channels: The Civil Rights Case that Transformed Television" (University Press of Mississippi, 2004).

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