By Scott Travis
3:58 PM EDT, June 23, 2009
Community colleges pride themselves on open-door policies, but they could be shutting soon for thousands of South Florida students.
Budget cuts have eliminated hundreds of classes at Miami Dade College, while Broward College and Palm Beach Community College worry they won’t be able to add enough classes to handle the demand.
The state’s record-high unemployment rate, 10.2 percent in May, is prompting thousands of workers to return to school for job training. And many may not be able to get in.
“If you’re not working right now, school is your only option,” said Eddie Dee, 21, a sophomore at Miami Dade College. “If you can’t go to school, and you can’t work, you’re basically screwed.”
The problem is twofold: First, the schools were hit with state budget cuts of more than $100 million over the past two years.
At the same time, demand is exploding, and not just from unemployed workers. State universities also have capped freshman enrollment, sending those students to community colleges.
Miami Dade College, on June 17 the first in South Florida to begin fall registration, predicted about 5,000 students might not get into any classes this fall. And about 30,000 of its 86,000 students might not get at least one class needed to graduate.
In the first 12 hours of registration, more than 19,000 signed up, overloading the computer system. Twelve hours later, 204 classes already were at capacity.
Students like Gabriella Iglesias waited more than three hours in the registration and advising offices that first morning.
“The lines have been really long,” said Iglesias, 18, of Miami Shores. “I heard they were cutting classes, and just my luck, I would be left without a class. I thought I should be one of the first ones.”
Schools throughout Florida are admitting students on a first-come, first-served basis. Those who get shut out likely will face delays in graduating.
About 30 percent of students in Florida graduate from a community college within three years, higher than the national average of 20 percent. But that percentage may drop if students can’t get the classes they need, officials said.
“We talk a lot of times about it taking six years to get a two-year degree. We’re all concerned about making that longer,” said Willis Holcombe, state chancellor of community colleges.
Students who do get into the schools may face crowded classrooms, cafeterias and bookstores, and fewer available parking spaces.
About 870,000 students were enrolled in community colleges in 2008-09, up from 805,000 the previous academic year. That could increase to 920,000 this fall, with another 20,000 expected whom the schools may not be able to accommodate, state officials say.
Other South Florida schools also are urging students to move quickly.
Registration at Palm Beach Community College opens July 7 for honors students and July 13 for most new and returning students.
“Our whole thrust is to get people to act early, apply early and register early,” said Grace Truman, a spokeswoman for the college.
“For a lot of students, early means the week before classes. That’s not going to cut it this year. They will find very little to choose from.”
Broward College, which began open registration Monday, is starting an advertising campaign in July on movie screens, buses and its website urging students to register early.
As of Monday, 1,600 new students had registered, up 13 percent from last year’s first-day total of 1,400. And they were taking 24 percent more classes, 6,000, compared to last year’s 4,800.
“We’re facing unprecedented demand and doing our best during significant budget cuts to move as many resources as we can into the classroom, but we fully expect many students will not be able to get the courses they want,” President David Armstrong said.
Broward College officials are waiting to see if those who get shut out at Miami Dade College try to come north for classes. About 10 percent of Broward College students live in Miami-Dade County.
Miami Dade College canceled an open house last month, saying it didn’t want to give students the impression it could accommodate everyone.
The school led an effort last year for a constitutional amendment to give local voters the option of raising taxes to support community colleges. State voters said no.
“Unfortunately, there are no solutions,” said Juan Mendieta, a spokesman for Miami Dade College.
“There is no money to expand online capacity or even physical space. Therefore, the college’s message to students is to continue attempting to register early, but to be extremely patient.”
Enrollment increases bring in more tuition dollars, but that only accounts for about a third of the cost of educating students, colleges said.
Broward College and Palm Beach Community College say they will use that tuition money to hire lower-paid adjunct faculty to meet as much of the demand as they can. But they said demand may exceed the pool of qualified instructors.
E.H. Levering, chief financial officer at Miami Dade College, said his school isn’t adding classes yet, but may re-evaluate demand and resources later. He said he’s worried the state will make midyear cuts next year, as it has done the past two years.
“I don’t have any degree of confidence the budget’s going to hold up,” Levering said. “It’s an interesting and difficult situation to deal with.”
Scott Travis can be reached at stravis@SunSentinel.com, 954-425-1421 or 561-243-6637.
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