Student surge squeezes 2-year colleges

There are 50,000 new enrollees, but no new funds to cover extra costs.

Published October 10, 2007

As a barometer of tough economic times, think of community colleges as the canary in the coal mine.

When things get hard, laid-off workers or underpaid high school graduates head for community colleges to polish their skills and credentials.

The canary is feeling the heat this fall, with an unexpected surge of more than 50,000 new students into community colleges statewide. That translates into the full-time equivalent of 19,000 students, according to the Department of Education.

College presidents are reporting the worst of both worlds: crowds of students and no extra money to pay for them.

Under the state formula, community colleges get funding based on the previous year's enrollment. That, plus Gov. Charlie Crist's veto of a tuition increase this summer, has made for a budget crunch:

- At Hillsborough Community College there are "parking jams all over the place" and 2,000 new students, said president Gwendolyn W. Stephenson.

- At Pasco-Hernando Community College, remedial courses in English and other basic courses are full to brimming, library hours have been cut, and 11 needed positions haven't been filled.

- At Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, some upper-level science courses weren't offered this fall.

Community colleges have an open-door admissions policy, and graduates can transfer directly to four-year schools.

That policy has been tested by the Board of Governors' decision this summer to freeze freshman enrollment at four-year colleges, while still allowing transfers. Suddenly, community colleges are one of the best routes to a four-year degree.

"We don't want to close the open door, because that's our mission," said Pasco-Hernando Community College president Katherine Johnson. "But you can only hire so many faculty. We're pretty maxed out as far as our ability to assist students."

The pressure has been exacerbated by a "constant rolling up of admissions standards" at four-year colleges, said St. Petersburg College president Carl Kuttler.

College presidents say Tallahassee could provide immediate help by approving a 5 percent tuition hike for the spring, and reimbursing schools for a 4 percent cut in their current budgets.

That would add about $200 to the cost of a two-year degree, which is currently about $4,070.

But it would make a big difference in serving unanticipated arrivals, said Jackson Sasser, president of Santa Fe Community College and chairman of Florida's Council of Presidents.

Even with more students, "we're dealing with the same pot of money," he said. "For the last 12 years, the Legislature has given us permission to raise tuition."

And legislators should consider the idea of paying community colleges for currently enrolled students, instead of only paying based on last year's enrollment numbers, said Hillsborough president Stephenson.

But funding or not, students like 22-year-old Natasha Stephens are arriving in droves.

Even with her 2003 high school diploma from Central High School in Brooksville, it's a minimum-wage job at Race Trac that pays the bills. She hopes a nursing degree from PHCC will change that.

"Mostly what was open was cashiering," Stephens said. "I just got tired of not being hired and not being treated well."

Miguel Chamorro, 20, graduated from Central two years ago with high hopes.

Now he's also studying nursing at the college and working part time at Wal-Mart. There just doesn't seem to be anything in the job market for him between minimum wage and professional.

"It doesn't hurt having a degree," Chamorro figured. "Better than working fast food the rest of your life."

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431. Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at svansickler@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3403.