College enrollment skyrockets in bad economy

By Chris Mongillo, University of Washington, Olympia Legislative Reporting Internship Program.
As Washington’s unemployment rate swells past 6.4 percent, community college officials fear they will have to start turning away applicants. Over the past year, the unemployment rate in Washington has climbed from 4.6 percent to 6.4 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. During times of high unemployment a synergy forms between unemployment and enrollment in community and technical colleges, said Chris Reykdal, deputy director of finance for community and technical colleges. As the state’s unemployment rate increases, displaced workers use the down-turn as an opportunity to re-educate themselves. “Whenever the economy turns, there’s usually a growth in community colleges,” said Skip Priest, R-Federal Way, the ranking minority member of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Education. This is because workers use this time to retrain and expand their abilities and expertise, Priest said. Community colleges are faced with the daunting task of accommodating more students during a time when the state faces a record deficit. According to Reykdal, as the unemployment rate climbs to 5 percent, community colleges are already at 3.5 percent demand for enrollment above what they budgeted for. As unemployment breaks 6 percent, demand for enrollment takes its toll on the system. At 7 percent unemployment, there will be 7,000 to 10,000 students beyond current capacity. When asked what community college students can expect in the coming months, Denise Graham, operating budget director for the state board of community and technical colleges, said there will be an “increase in minimum class size.” Graham said students will likely see larger class sizes and a 5 percent hike in tuition–$125 more per year for the average full-time student. Reykdal said Washington’s unemployment rate is projected to peak at 8 percent in 2009. This will mean that community colleges will not be able to meet the demand for enrollment. Because state tax collections are also down because of the downturn in the economy, cuts in state funding of higher education are also likely. Gov. Chris Gregoire’s budget proposal cuts community college spending 6.5 percent, according to Graham. “We’re talking about significant cuts to faculty and to instruction,” Reykdal said. “By that time, you will see our colleges making very honest statements about no longer serving students.” In addition to community colleges being unable to meet demand for enrollment, the state budget cutbacks will eliminate certain programs and some faculty members. This would, in turn, increase the weight upon the shoulders of already strained professors. “We’ve got faculty who will take the burden of this demand, because they will have much higher class sizes. Their COLA’s [Cost of living adjustment] are getting frozen in the governor’s budget and there isn’t a whole lot of hope in the near term for salary increases,” Reykdal said. Rep. Deb Wallace, D-Vancouver, who chairs the House Higher Education Committee, said the governor’s budget is unlikely to be passed as is. Creation of the state budget is a negotiation process. Legislators just came into session this month and are taking testimony on all aspects of the budget. This year, the senate will propose its budget first, followed by the house’s response to their budget. “We’ll basically have three renditions and what will happen is we will then negotiate between the House and the Senate and the governor’s office to get a budget that we all feel we can pass,” Wallace said. This will likely mean students at community colleges will not experience cuts or tuition hikes in the same amounts as proposed by the governor in her budget, Wallace said. When asked what community college students could expect after a final budget has been agreed upon, Wallace said that students can expect higher tuition if they are not classified as low-income. They will also see the elimination of certain programs, but which programs will be eliminated will be left to the discretion of individual colleges, she said. Wallace said lawmakers recognize the importance of community colleges. They understand that programs that are offered at community colleges are very relevant to getting jobs after graduation. Wallace said, “community college is the most relevant place to get an education,” because many programs directly lead to employment, for instance in nursing or auto mechanics. Because of that direct tie to employment, community colleges appear to be better situated than the state’s four-year colleges and universities as lawmakers look for places to cut higher education spending.