Rising enrollment strains community colleges

The state’s community colleges are once again experiencing record enrollment growth, an expansion that college officials say could force them to end their policy of accepting all applicants.

“We can’t continue at this pace,” said Anita T. Gliniecki, president of Housatonic Community College, adding the almost 50 percent enrollment increase in the last five years has her campus at capacity. “We cannot continue to grow without additional staff and additional funds.”

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This is the twelfth consecutive year the state’s dozen community colleges experienced a surge in enrollment, from about 39,000 during the 1998 fall semester to a preliminary count of more than 58,000 this semester, the Connecticut State Department of Higher Education reported Monday.

“We have lived with this philosophy of open enrollment at these colleges for decades. We can’t afford to fund this open enrollment model indefinitely,” said State Higher Education Commissioner Michael P. Meotti. “Enrollment is outstripping capacity. People can’t get into classes and programs.”

Vanessa Morest, dean of institutional effectiveness at Norwalk Community College, said 90 percent of the classes at NCC had more students trying to enroll than spaces available at the start of this semester. A few years ago, she estimates students were shut out of just over half the classes.

“We’re an open admission college. But that doesn’t mean people will be able to get into their classes. That’s a major problem,” said Kim Ebert, director of enrollment at NCC.

Community college leaders say this enrollment increase comes at the worst possible time, since it is unlikely state lawmakers, facing huge budget deficits, will find more money for community colleges.

“Increased costs are inevitable when you have this big of an increase in the number of students. We are looking at a very, very grim picture,” said Mary Anne Cox, assistant chancellor of Connecticut Community Colleges

Community colleges have been level-funded at about $158 million since the 2008-09 school year. In that time, enrollment increased 14 percent.

But Rep. Roberta B. Willis, co-chairwoman of the legislature’s Higher Education and Employment Advancement Committee and graduate of Northwestern Community College, said she is not ready to consider requiring that the state’s community colleges start turning people away.

“I will not consider that until it’s the last resort,” she said. “You would be closing the door on a lot of people that are asking for an education. … I don’t want to leave people behind.”

With or without legislative action, Cox said the record enrollment growth already has community colleges headed down this path.

“We’ll soon have to turn students away, there is no question about it,” Cox said. “This comes at the worst possible time. There may be no where else for these students to go.”

Community colleges have long served as an inexpensive alternative for those to whom other higher education choices are a financial or academic stretch.

Katherine Monsalve, a 21-year-old single mother from Fairfield, said she couldn’t afford to go anywhere but Housantonic Community College.

“When I heard Sacred Heart was in the $30,000 a year price range, that’s when I looked at this school. That’s a lot of money,” she said. “This school is a lot cheaper. That helps.”

Meotti calls community colleges a “bargain” for students, as tuition and fees are just $3,400 for a full-time in-state student this semester. Tuition and fees at the University of Connecticut this fall is $10,416.

“People see going to these colleges as a smart investment,” he said, noting that more students go to the state’s community colleges than Connecticut State University System or UConn. “The limited amount of space [at community colleges] is something we must talk about.”

He said it makes no sense to accept someone into a class that there is no chance they are going to pass, while shutting out another student that has a good chance of passing the class.

“It’s not really doing you any favors to let you in a class that you are doomed to fail,” he said.

Willis does not see the 80 percent of students needing remedial classes as a problem for the community colleges, rather an opportunity to get them academically where they should be.

“Yes, that’s a huge, huge burden on community colleges. But where else are they going to learn?” she asked. “In order to turn this economy around, they have to be able to work. … This would be closing the door on a lot of people before they even have a shot.”

But Meotti is focusing on the likelihood being that state funding will decrease, so community colleges will soon only be able to afford a limited number of students. “You have to be a realist. … We are going to accept the budgetary reality that the odds are funding is going to decrease.”

And with that decrease, he believes the decade-old policy of accepting everyone that applies to community colleges needs to be reconsidered.