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Community colleges stretched beyond limits

State budget constraints mean thousands of students are being shut out of the classes they need.

By ANITA KUMAR, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 22, 2003

[Times photo: Chris Zuppa]
Nathan Lagow of Tampa and his 4-year old daughter, Gillian, patiently wait in line as he registers for classes at Hillsborough Community College. Some students waited for hours, yet couldn't get the courses they need.

Enrollment soars at community colleges

St. Petersburg College
Last year: 20,000 students
Estimated growth this year: 3 percent
Likely growth: 5 percent to 14 percent

Hillsborough Community College
Last year: 44,000 students
Estimated growth this year: 3.5 percent
Likely growth: 10 percent

Pasco-Hernando Community College
Last year: 19,000 students
Estimated growth: 5 percent
Likely growth: 9 percent

Last year: 830,000 students
Estimated growth: 7 percent
Likely growth: Not available

Source: Community colleges

Jeff Nietupski couldn't get into the math or history courses he needs to graduate when he registered for the upcoming fall semester at St. Petersburg College.

The 18-year-old enrolled in other classes, but he worried Thursday whether he will finish his associate's degree on time after being shut out of the two required classes.

"I'm just going to get behind," complained Nietupski, a Pinellas Park High graduate, as he tried to sort out his registration problems at the Gibbs campus in St. Petersburg.

Nietupski is among tens of thousands of Florida students admitted to community colleges who are unable to get into the classes they need because the schools don't have enough money to accommodate them. Those students are dropping out of school or taking classes they don't need until others become available.

"We've reached the point we can't stretch any further," said Harry Albertson, executive director of the Florida Association of Community Colleges. "I hate that it's come to this. There is a lot of frustration out there."

College administrators warned Gov. Jeb Bush and state legislators that budget cuts would create dire situations for students. As classes begin at community colleges across Florida, those predictions are becoming reality.

"We're trying to help students find another class or campus," said Robert Chunn, president of the Dale Mabry campus of Hillsborough Community College. "If we fail, there's literally nothing we can do except apologize."

In May, the Legislature sliced $11-million from the community college budget and provided no money for the estimated 57,000 new students flocking to schools, many as a result of the poor economy. Paying for the enrollment growth would have cost the state $50-million, and the community colleges can't cover that entire bill with the money they have.

Under state law, Florida's 28 community colleges must admit most students with a high school diploma. But years of financial woes are creating problems at many of the colleges, particularly those in urban areas.

At Valencia Community College in Orlando, about 4,000 students won't get into classes. At Broward Community College, about 3,000 students can't find room in classes they need.

About three-quarters of the schools, including Hillsborough Community, do not have money to add new classes for those students.

St. Petersburg College increased its number of classes by 3 percent after filling up many classes two weeks ago. But the college expects enrollment to rise by up to 14 percent.

Registration, which began in the spring, is generally on a first-come, first-serve basis. Many students trying to get into classes this week were out of luck. The biggest problem areas are remedial classes, which include reading, English and math; and general education classes needed to graduate.

St. Petersburg and Hillsborough school administrators won't have estimates of the number of students turned away until after classes begin Monday. They said it could involve thousands of students.

At Pasco-Hernando Community College, about 200 students have been turned away. An additional 75 to 100 students only got into one class they need.

"I absolutely don't like that we had to turn students away," said Robert Judson, Pasco-Hernando's president. "We're an open-door institution. But we've done the best we could with what we've got to work with."

In recent years, students have been able to get into classes, but not always the ones they wanted or at the times they needed. This year, however, students may find themselves shut out of all classes or ones needed for their majors.

Yari Rodriguez needed to enroll in human anatomy and physiology this fall to get into the nursing program at Hillsborough Community College. The 25-year-old arrived at the campus on Dale Mabry at 9 a.m. Thursday and waited in line.

Six hours later, she discovered the last spot had just been filled.

"I begged," said Rodriguez, a junior. "But I couldn't get in."

Rodriguez plans to appeal the decision to a dean, but she will have to wait a semester if she can't get into the class.

"I'm quite peeved," she said.

Hillsborough Community officials estimate they would need to add 41 more remedial classes for 1,025 students. That doesn't include general education and other specialized classes.

"We will not be able to assist all of those that come," said Sylvia Carley, vice president for education and student development at Hillsborough Community College. "We can't deal with that basic need."

For example, a Hillsborough Community College English professor who usually teaches five classes will teach eight classes, or 75 more students this fall. A St. Petersburg College class that usually has 30 students will get 10 more.

"It's hard to get into classes anywhere," said Jenna Middlebrooks, a University of South Florida student who tried to take one class at Hillsborough Community this fall for her major. The classes were full, but she got the last spot in a class at St. Petersburg College.

Community colleges are offering more online classes, dipping into savings and holding back on purchases to ease some of the burden. They also are increasing class sizes, leaving teaching vacancies open and forcing faculty members to teach more classes.

Students are also seeing long lines for counselors, advisers and loan administrators.

"I have never seen it this way," said David Armstrong, chancellor of the state community college system. "We are telling students that we are asking the Legislature for money and they're going to have to be patient."

About 830,000 students attend community college in Florida. The schools expect to raise about $50-million through the 7.5 percent tuition increase.

But the budget cuts continue a painful trend for the community college system. While enrollment has increased 27.5 percent since 2000, its portion of the state budget has grown just 1.8 percent.

"For so many years, you can do it and make it fit," said Carol Copenhaver, senior vice president of educational and student services at St. Petersburg College. "Not any more."

Brian Rosa, 22, needs to take a composition class to stay on track to get his associate's degree at St. Petersburg College. But he couldn't get composition, so he decided Thursday to drop down to three classes.

"I'll have to take it another semester," said Rosa, a St. Petersburg resident who stood in line at the Gibbs campus for more than an hour. "But I did better than most."

- Times staff writer Dong-Phuong Nguyen contributed to this report.

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