March 12, 2010

Colleges' demand outpaces budget

KELLEY BOUCHARD

— By

Staff Writer

Applications are up 20 percent across the Maine Community College System for the spring semester starting this month, an increase that system officials attribute to people seeking new skills in recession-battered job market.

Unfortunately, system officials said, they'll have to turn away some applicants because recent budget cuts won't allow them to hire additional instructors.

''We are doing everything in our power to keep the doors open as wide as possible, but we are stretched thin and will not be able to serve all of these applicants,'' said John Fitzsimmons, system president.

Overall, the number of people who applied for the spring semester increased by 580 across the system's seven campuses, from 2,916 in December 2007 to 3,496 in December 2008, said Helen Pelletier, system spokeswoman.

The largest increases are at Kennebec Valley Community College in Fairfield (38 percent) and Central Maine Community College in Auburn (25 percent).

Elsewhere in the system, applications are up 21 percent at Eastern Maine Community College in Bangor, 19 percent at York County Community College in Wells, 15 percent at Southern Maine Community College and 14 percent at Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle.

Washington County Community College in Calais received nine fewer applications this semester, a reduction of 13 percent.

The University of Maine System has yet to tally application and enrollment figures for the spring semester.

Pelletier said the community colleges will have to turn away some students because demand for some programs and courses is high and they cannot afford to hire additional faculty.

''Student tuition only represents about 25 percent of the cost of college operations. State appropriations represent about 44 percent,'' Pelletier said. ''So even a significant increase in enrollment doesn't cover the additional costs of serving those students.''

Full-time community college students taking five courses per semester pay $3,300 a year in tuition and fees, Pelletier said.

The increased demand at Maine's community colleges comes at a difficult time. The colleges recently had to make mid-year budget cuts totalling $2.9 million to offset a reduction in state funding in the fiscal year that ends in June.

In addition, the system has absorbed a 64 percent increase in enrollment since its transition from technical to community colleges in 2003. The system reported 12,316 degree-seeking students in September -- 634 more than 2007 and nearly 4,800 more than 2003.

Pelletier said it's unclear how many students will be turned away this semester.

''The situation varies from college to college and program to program,'' she said. ''Some of our most popular programs, with the most promising job prospects, have waiting lists of up to three semesters.''

As a result, some students won't be accepted into their first-choice programs, Pelletier said. Some of them won't be interested in another available program and will be turned away, while others will choose another program. Still other students will enroll in introductory courses while they wait for a spot in their desired program.

The spring semester starts next week. High-demand programs include nursing, cardiovascular technology, radiography, respiratory therapy, surgical technology, automotive technology, computer science and electronics, early childhood education, electrical technologies and welding.

System officials attribute the increase to the weak economy and rising unemployment. During past economic downturns, the state's community colleges have experienced an increase in both applications and enrollment as individuals sought to upgrade their job skills or prepare for a new career.

In November, Maine's unemployment rate hit 6.3 percent -- the highest point in 14 years. A year before, the state unemployment rate was 4.9 percent. More job losses are expected this year, with estimates of a peak at 8.7 percent.

''Getting people back to work has got to be a top priority for our state,'' Fitzsimmons said. ''Maine people understand that and are turning to our colleges to gain the skills they need to find solid jobs and economic security.''

Nick Huggins, a criminal justice major at Southern Maine Community College, said the benefits of a community college education in a weak economy are clear.

''It's a credible program, it's affordable and it's quick,'' said Huggins, who wants to be a game warden. ''I knew I'd learn from some of the best instructors in southern Maine and be out in two years without a huge tuition bill hanging over me.''

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

kbouchard@pressherald.com

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