Gateway Community College president Dorsey Kendrick couldn’t be more excited about the state-of-the-art campus in downtown New Haven the college is set to break ground on this fall. For Gateway, the $147 million project, scheduled to open in 2012 and increase student capacity by 50 percent, couldn’t come any sooner.That’s because surging demand forced Gateway to cap enrollments last fall for the first time in the college’s history. Fall enrollments jumped 8.5 percent last year, pushing the population at one of the state’s largest community colleges to 6,500 students. Gateway then took a drastic measure.
“We had to stop accepting applications because we had no more sections we could offer,” Kendrick said. “It’s not fair to have students come through the testing process if there are no courses for them to take.”
It’s a scene being played out across community colleges across the state system. Enrollments at the 12 schools jumped 5.5 percent in the fall — total enrollments cracked 50,000 for the first time — as a suffering economy forces students to explore cheaper higher education alternatives. The system has also seen an increase in laid off workers heading back to school to make themselves more attractive to employers.
At a time when more are turning to the community college system, those in higher education circles fear the governor’s proposed budget could force community colleges to make the difficult decision to cap enrollments because they will not be able to provide the necessary services to match rising demand.
This would mean new territory for the community college system. While state and private universities set enrollment caps each year, the community colleges are known for their open enrollment policies for qualified students.
For a state like Connecticut that relies on a skilled work force, it’s clear that turning students away from community colleges hurts the state’s future employment situation, said Mary Anne Cox, assistant chancellor of the community college system.
“These are the people who are going to be the work force of the future that is going to return Connecticut to prosperity,” Cox said.
The community college system, which took a 5 percent cut this year, is facing services cuts of 10.2 and 12 percents in 2010 and 2011, respectively, compared to projected demand.
These services include everything from tutoring hours and career assistance to keeping the bookstore staffed. A cut in services could be especially damaging to community colleges, especially because so many students entering the system require beginner courses, said Capital Workforce Partners chief executive officer Thomas Phillips.
“A lot of young people are coming in there needing a lot of remediation before course work,” Phillips said. “They’re coming in not prepared.”
According to Kendrick, all indications suggest Gateway will have to cap enrollments again this fall. The problem is certainly not unique to Gateway, however. Several other community colleges said they came dangerously close to capping enrollments last fall and fear rising demand and possible budget cuts could force them to cap enrollments, which was previously unthinkable in the community college system.
Norwalk Community College’s 14 percent enrollment increase since the fall 2007 semester forced the school to make a difficult choice last year not to cap enrollments.
“We kept enrollments open, but we literally ran out of space,” said president David Levinson. Spring enrollments, though historically lower, actually surpassed this fall’s total.
Manchester Community College, the largest in the state system, also saw spring enrollments surpass fall’s numbers. Now, the university is studying which services it could cut and whether enrollments should be capped.
“The question is how many more students you can add before you get to the point that you’re not going to offer the kind of services you need to give,” said Manchester president Gena Glickman.
Housatonic Community College faced the same dilemma after seeing enrollments jump 13.5 percent in the fall semester. Housatonic president Anita Gliniecki said a cap could be likely for the fall.
“With the worst-case scenario that’s out there, we will have to cap enrollments, which is a shame, because this is when students’ needs are increasing,” Gliniecki said.
Universities have started to prepare for that worst-case scenario. Levinson said Norwalk could stand to lose up to $1.7 million in state funding this year, meaning the college would have to cut back mainly on services for the community. Gliniecki said Housatonic, which projects a $1.2 million cut, would shut down the campus on weekends and reduce library services.
With that in mind, Rell put out a proposal earlier this year to create a middle college system to enroll students at vocational-technical high schools in community colleges. Rell said the middle colleges would cut down on the demand for remedial programs and allow students to graduate high school with a majority of college credits already accumulated.
The plan has drawn the criticism of community college leaders, who point to already established relationships with local high schools. Cox said the plan currently lacks details, but she fears it could put more strain on the college system’s resources when the schools are already the target of cuts.
“There are already a myriad of programs out there that unite Connecticut high schools, including technical schools, with community colleges,” she said.
With state aid possibly shrinking, college leaders are turning their attention to potential federal stimulus dollars toward higher education and a number of federal programs that could funnel dollars into their schools. The community college system has brought in some high-profile grants recently, including $2 million in January to develop alternative energy career programs.