The Quest to Get Into Class

Community colleges around the country try to accommodate fall's enrollment boom with waiting lists, more adjunct faculty and creative advising.
September 15, 2010

For many community colleges around the country this fall semester, the song remains the same. Yet again, enrollments are at an all-time high, and waiting lists for classes remain long, but the search continues for ways to accommodate the growing demand.

In California, where public institutions have struggled mightily amid a well-documented budget crisis, the number of students being turned away from open-access institutions is swelling for a second straight year. Many of the state's community colleges have had to cut sections, meaning that enrollment is down. Demand, however, is higher than ever.

Take Los Rios Community College District, in greater Sacramento, for example. Classes at its four colleges started four weeks ago, but the institutions have a total of 40,000 students on various waiting lists for courses — or about one for every two students actually enrolled in a course.

“We had to cut course offerings by about 6 percent this fall (which equals about 850 class sections) and so our enrollment is down by nearly 5,000 students from last year,” wrote Susie Williams, associate vice chancellor for communications and research at Los Rios, via e-mail. “We have 85,593 students enrolled this year compared to 90,563 who were enrolled at the same time last year. Given that for a number of years we have seen annual growth between 5 percent [and] 6 percent, we should have increased enrollment by 5,000 to 6,000 students this fall.”

Maximizing Classroom Space

One state eastward, state budget cuts have made their mark at the College of Southern Nevada, located in metropolitan Las Vegas, but they have not forced the institution to turn away students by the thousands like some in California. Instead, sacrifices are being made in other areas to accommodate for the 5 percent or so growth in the college’s enrollment.

“Nevada, like much of the country, is experiencing a very serious budget crisis (shortfall could be $3 million in the next biennium — 50 percent of the state budget), thus adding large numbers of new faculty positions to add a plethora of new class sections is simply not possible,” wrote Darren Divine, vice president of academic affairs at Southern Nevada, in an e-mail. “Having said that, we are trying to keep our entire full-time faculty lines already in the budget staffed, and are relying on part-time employees as much as ever to try and squeeze every single class section we can into the schedule.”

Divine explained that the college is offering some “specialized courses with lower demands” on a less frequent basis so faculty members are freed up to teach “higher-demand classes.” In keeping with this move, he noted that the college is seeing increased interest in general education classes that are “designed to meet core degree requirements and transfer efforts” in addition to entry-level courses in “more applied” disciplines.

Though Southern Nevada does not maintain waiting lists per se — it does not have registration software capable of handling them — it does keep track of the number of “attempted enrollments” past the capacity point of its classes. By this measure, college officials note that their efforts to maximize classroom space are making some progress.

Take biology 187, a key “gateway course” for many science majors at the college. Last fall, the course’s 22 sections had 925 students. Another 1,691 tried to enroll but did not get a spot. This fall, the course has 27 sections and a capacity of 1,082 students. The number of students who tried to enroll but did not garner a spot declined to 1,541 — still, of course, more than the total who actually got into the course. There were similar declines in attempted enrollments in some of the college’s other gateway courses, including commerce, sociology, and psychology 101.

Some of the new sections offered at Southern Nevada this semester, however, meet at some very nontraditional hours. Last year, inspired by a string of institutions that had done the same, the college introduced late-night classes between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. Now, enrollment in these sections is up and the college is offering 20 different courses at these unconventional times. Divine said that these late-night offerings are here to stay for the foreseeable future, as at least one way to keep students from being turned away from the college.

Temporary Fixes

Growing enrollment — in many cases continuing year after year — is testing many community colleges nationally.

At Central New Mexico Community College, in Albuquerque, enrollment has grown by more than 25 percent in the past three years. Currently, at 29,773, enrollment is at an all-time high.

Interestingly, though, noted Phillip Bustos, the college’s vice president for student services, students are taking more credit hours than they did in the past, by nearly a class or two per semester. This accounts, he added, for some of the waiting lists in the college’s core courses, such as introductory English and math. Sections of these courses during what Bustos calls the “bottleneck times” of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5 to 7 p.m. usually have about 50 students still waiting at the start of the semester.

To accommodate those who cannot get into a section of a course essential for graduation, transfer, or continuance to a higher-level course, Bustos said, the college is getting some faculty and students to work together for something akin to an “independent study” — meaning faculty do additional one-on-one work with a few students. Also, though the college has not done so yet, Bustos said, it may alter its traditional practice of keeping classes to less than 30 or so students before the beginning of spring registration.

Meanwhile, at Calhoun Community College, the largest two-year institution in Alabama, students are being advised differently than in the past if they are unable to get into the class of their choice. Recently, the college topped the 12,000-student mark for the first time in its history — up about 6 percent from last fall.

Alicia Taylor, the college’s vice president for instruction and student success, noted that the college is increasingly granting more students the ability to substitute equivalent courses within programs of study for one another if they are a course or two short of graduation or transfer. This offer is never made for “core” or “general education” courses; it is most often used for “prescribed electives” within disciplines.

“Let’s say a computer science student missed taking a Java course, we would let them take a C programming or advanced Visual Basic instead,” Taylor said. “These equivalent courses would prepare them for the market, albeit with a slightly different slant. We’ll allow this mixing and matching as long as it’s not impacting students in the overall training.”

At Tulsa Community College, in Oklahoma, the answer to meeting increased demand is more adjuncts. This fall, the college had a 35 percent increase in the number of first-time students. The college’s overall enrollment, now 20,000, is at an all-time high. But, perhaps more telling of today’s economy, the enrollment for its Tulsa Achieves program — which waives tuition for many local residents — is also serving an all-time high of 1,637 students, up 187 students from last year.

“So far, we have been able to keep up with the growth,” said Lauren Brookey, college spokeswoman. “Our state budget got cuts last year, the year before and our employees haven’t had raises in two years. But we haven’t had to lay off employees.”

The college is, however, relying on more part-time faculty, Brookey noted. The college has seven more full-time faculty members than last year, pushing their number up to 300; meanwhile, it has 48 more adjunct faculty members, for a total of 1,185.


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