Community colleges face budget cuts as enrollment spikes

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Community colleges are seeing a spike in enrollment as the economy falters, but the same economy could have severe budget implications on the colleges.

Statewide, enrollment in public two-year institutions is up about 5 percent. Locally, some high schools sent graduates to community colleges at a rate 20 percent higher than the previous year.

As colleges work to accommodate the extra students, they have been warned of a looming state budget shortfall. Higher education institutions are formulating responses to a request from the Missouri Department of Higher Education and ultimately lawmakers listing the effect of 15, 20 or 25 percent cuts.

"All of it couldn't have happened at a worse time. If in fact we're looking at cuts as high as 25 percent, that's astronomical. I don't know what exactly we will have to do. We can't keep adding students, we can't keep adding faculty, we can't keep adding classes when you have little or nothing to pay for it," said Dr. James Kellerman, executive director of the Missouri Community College Association.

Kellerman said tuition could not be increased enough to offset the cuts without alienating their main student base. Students are seeking community colleges because of their affordability, he said. Another influx of students is from adults laid off from work seeking to gain extra skills.

Paul Wagner, deputy commissioner of the Missouri Department of Higher Education, said that "on one hand students are recognizing that in this economy it sure is easier to get a good job by having higher education," while at the same time realizing that they might not have the resources to attend a four-year collge right out of high school.

He said the potential state budget cuts may force some institutions to implement a hiring freeze. The University of Missouri system has already made such a move.

Enrollment in four-year public institutions increased about 2 percent between fall 2006 and fall 2007 statewide, while the increase was 5 percent at community colleges.

Recently released district report cards show that the number of local graduates attending community colleges increased by 26.5 percent at Zalma High School, 20.5 percent at Meadow Heights High School and 19.1 percent in Scott City.

Zalma High School counselor Shelly Borders said the school is in the process of becoming designated as A-Plus, a program that awards students scholarships to community colleges if they meet certain GPA and good citizenship requirements. Meadow Heights is also close to obtaining the designation.

For students of the rural school, about half of which are classified as low-income, they may be the first in their family to go to college, superintendent Rob Huff said.

"In a lot of rural schools, there seems to be a gap between students' potential and what they are actually attempting after graduating. We felt we had a lot of kids that were not going anywhere," he said.

Increasing the number of students entering post-secondary training became a major focus for the district. Administrators and teachers implemented four-year graduation plans, personally followed up and encouraged students to take appropriate tests and fill out applications and stressed the importance of education in a technical world.

For some, a community college is more accessible "at least culturally," Huff said.

Three Rivers Community College, based in Poplar Bluff, Mo., saw a record enrollment last year, mostly because of the scaling back or closing of three major area companies, executive vice president Dr. Larry Kimbrow said. The school is looking to add a center in Cape Girardeau.

Businesses, community leaders and colleges are funding an analysis to determine the higher education needs of the region and whether the area could support a community college. Results are expected in February.

lbavolek@semissourian.com

388-3627

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