States are digging into their federal stimulus money to help finance community colleges, where rising tuition, soaring enrollment and budget cuts threaten to shut students out of the system.
But the $144 billion in stimulus money for state and local fiscal relief won't make up for budget cuts in every state. Miami Dade College , the nation's largest community college with 167,000 students, will be forced to limit enrollment this fall because of state budget cuts. California officials, anticipating a 33 percent enrollment increase this summer and fall, said they may have to turn away 250,000 community college students because they can't afford to accept them.
"We didn't even have parking for everybody," said Jessica Rico, 20, a second-year business major at East Los Angeles College , which canceled half of the courses it was going to offer during its second summer session because of state budget cuts.
The number of students attending two-year community colleges is growing. Hawaii's seven community colleges registered 28 percent more students this year than a year ago. The Virginia community college system has announced plans for 30 new buildings to keep up with growth. In all, community colleges now enroll almost half of all undergraduates.
The number of students attending community college increases during an economic downturn, said Norma Kent, vice president of communications at the American Association of Community Colleges in Washington, D.C.
Laid-off workers return to school to gain skills they hope will boost their chances of landing another job, and traditional college-age students enroll in community colleges because it costs an average of $2,361 a year, or three times less than average costs at four-year state institutions.
And the colleges' financial problems are not going away anytime soon, as the recession is expected to strain state budgets for the next three years. Also, officials say they expect enrollment at community colleges to keep climbing after the Post-9/11 GI Bill goes into effect in August. The bill contains generous education benefits for military personnel who performed active duty service after Sept. 10, 2001 - including breaks on housing, books and tuition and fees.
The climbing enrollments have challenged many financially strapped states. At a time when states should be increasing funding to the schools to handle more students, the recession has forced states to slash funding to balance their budgets. States usually provide about 37 percent of the costs of a community college, with federal and local governments and student tuition contributing the rest.
"The question is: Can you continue to offer the same number of courses to the same number of students and offer the same quality - with much fewer dollars?" said Dan Klaich, executive vice chancellor of the Nevada System of Higher Education.
Community college officials in Nevada and elsewhere said in interviews that the federal stimulus money has eased the impact of budget cuts, while many community colleges are making up for shortfalls by raising tuition.
In Oregon, Portland Community College is raising its fall tuition by 5.7 percent, compared to a 13 percent hike at the state's public four-year schools. The average enrollment in Oregon community colleges is 18 percent higher this spring compared to a year ago. The state has the second-highest unemployment rate in the country after Michigan.
Virginia community college officials said they won't limit enrollment, but will boost tuition by 7.6 percent in the fall because of statewide budget cuts. The tuition increase will help pay for construction of 30 new buildings spread across most of the 23 campuses. Officials said the tuition increase would have been much higher if Virginia had not given community colleges $38.8 million in federal stimulus funds.
California is also considering increasing community college tuition. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) has proposed slashing $825 million and withholding $115 million from community colleges until next fiscal year to help plug the state's $42 billion budget deficit. If that happens, the state would turn away 250,000 students.
Kent, of the community colleges association, said she was worried these schools might deny an education to those people who most often depend on them - students from low-income areas or are first in their families to attend college. Because students sign up for classes at a first-come, first-served basis, those less familiar with the system would likely be shut out.
Rico from California, who said she hopes to own her own business someday, is able to afford community college because she received a fee waiver from the state based on financial need. She lives at home but has to support herself through a job at the student activities desk at her school. Now she worries that state cuts will cause her to lose her job and she will have to take out a loan to finish school.
Maryland has managed to avoid the problems of other states. Lawmakers froze community college tuition because the state was able to make up part of the difference with its federal stimulus dollars, said Shaun Adamec, Gov. Martin O'Malley's (D) press secretary.
This is the fourth-consecutive year Maryland has frozen tuition in an effort to make higher education more affordable to in-state students. "Each year, we will examine whether we can continue to do this," Adamec said. "And when we can do it, we will."