The Daily Hampshire Gazette- HCC hit by wave of college hopefuls

The Daily Hampshire Gazette- HCC hit by wave of college hopefuls

Downturn pushes applications up

By Kristin Palpini, Staff Writer

The recession may have opened the floodgates to community colleges.

This month, Holyoke Community College reported a 129 percent increase in applications for its 2009 fall semester compared to the number of applications received by this time last year, said Anne Sroka, director of marketing and public relations at HCC.

The number of applications for the fall semester is anticipated to increase, as HCC - like most community colleges - continues to enroll students up until shortly before the semester begins.

Other area community colleges, Greenfield and Springfield Technical, have not compiled their application data yet.

UMassOnline, another program where student interest is growing, is reporting an 18 percent increase in student inquiries for fall 2009 semester courses. Enrollment this year increased by 26.2 percent to 33,900 students.

"A lot of this you can attribute to the economy," Sroka said of interest in HCC. "Part of it is more people are coming through the unemployment pipeline and more students are going here for their first two years and transferring."

Time will tell whether the HCC applicants will turn into enrolled students.

Community colleges are seeing an increase in the number of students seeking to save money by attending a two-year school for part of their education, as Sroka indicated. Obtaining an associate's degree at HCC costs about $8,440.

Meanwhile, under the 2008-09 fee schedule, attending two years at the University of Massachusetts Amherst would cost about $20,464 (not including room and board) and two years at one of the area's private schools would cost around $70,000 (not including room and board).

An increase in applications can also be contributed to the rise in unemployment, said Sroka. People who are on unemployment insurance can, in some cases, extend their benefits by up to 18 weeks if they participate in approved job skill training courses.

In Massachusetts, the unemployment rate was around 6.9 percent in December, the most recent information available. There were 120,365 people receiving state unemployment benefits that month.

Getting ready to accommodate an anticipated influx of students, this week HCC has scheduled time to administer math and writing placement tests to 700 high school students.

Another testing time has been scheduled to coincide with April school vacation. The tests determine which course levels are appropriate for students. Testing over the spring semester is a change in procedure for the community college. Typically, HCC does all its testing in the summer.

"We want to do it now rather than wait for August," said Sroka. "It says something about our applications. We have more people for the fall, and we need to do this early to assist with placement."

Community colleges have reported rising enrollments over the last several years with an expected spike in admissions for at least the 2009-2010 academic year. Stephen H. Keller, vice president of academic affairs at Springfield Technical Community College, said the rise in the number of community college students can be attributed to the souring economy as well as aggressive outreach to potential students.

Enrollments at GCC have risen by 5 percent to more than 3,000 students this year. HCC is also seeing a 5 percent increase in enrollment this year.

At STCC, officials reported a 6 percent increase to 6,087 this semester, with a 7 percent increase in the number of credits students are taking.

"It is probable that as the economy worsens more students may be taking advantage of the affordability and proximity of community colleges," Keller said in a statement to the Gazette. "Our greatest challenge is to meet this growing enrollment demand in the midst of diminishing resource allocations from the commonwealth."

The increase in enrollment is pumping more money into college budgets, but it is not enough to offset cuts to higher education state subsidies. GCC, for example, will raise fees for the next academic year in an effort to make ends meet, in addition to implementing a hiring freeze, energy cost-saving measures, eliminating administrative positions and making reductions in deferred maintenance and travel expenses. A new GCC fee rate is yet to be announced.

"We cannot make more cuts without injuring the core of the college's programs," said GCC President Robert M. Pura in a statement. "Because we do not want to increase class sizes or shift to an all-adjunct faculty, we will increase student fees next year. We have held off from raising fees, doing everything else we can to balance the budget."

Cuts in state aid to Massachusetts community colleges and various other state agencies were made in October to help offset a $1.4 billion state operating shortfall. Cuts to the area's three community colleges ranged from $461,000 to $1.2 million.

Leaner budgets are predicted for the coming year. In the governor's proposed budget, GCC would receive $513,645 less from the state next fiscal year.

"As we plan an increase in fees, we are working to make sure we don't close the door to any students," Pura said. "It is essential that we stay committed to both access and excellence."

Date: 2/23/09