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Two-Year-Colleges Brace for Busy Year

Two-Year-Colleges Brace for Busy Year

Debby Abe, The News Tribune

Class schedules for Tacoma Community College’s fall quarter start arriving in Pierce County mailboxes in a few weeks. But for students who haven’t registered, the booklets could end up becoming more of a wish list.

“By the time people get the printed schedule,” TCC spokesman Dale Stowell said, “probably the majority of classes will be full.”

Thanks to the recession, TCC and other two-year public institutions in the state are bracing for what could be unprecedented demand this fall.

The State Board for Community and Technical Colleges doesn’t yet have firm projections for fall enrollment at the state’s 34 two-year institutions. But Charlie Earl, the board’s executive director, believes it will increase, based on past recessions, a demographic surge and strong summer school numbers topping off a record year of enrollment.

Whenever unemployment rolls rise and the economy dips, college enrollment generally jumps as people look to bolster skills or prepare for a new career. “The severity of this downturn is causing an even bigger reaction,” Earl said.

Last fall, public community and technical colleges enrolled the full-time-equivalent of nearly 134,000 students, a record in the state, according to a state board report. That total was 9,025 FTEs more than 2007, making it the highest annual increase in state-supported community and technical college students since the 1970s.

And those numbers didn’t include another growing segment – 34,000 high school, employed workers and other students whose tuition is supported through sources other than state community and technical funding.

Adding to the demand: The increase of 18- to 24-year-olds, the prime age group filling college classrooms. Earl pointed to data showing Washington is home to 675,000 residents in that age bracket this year, 21,000 more than two years ago.

“What you’re seeing is the seriousness of students of all ages about going back to school to improve their position in the economy,” he said. “They’re not screwing around right now.”

TCC has expanded its course offerings every quarter the past year, except for the summer, Stowell said.

“We’ve added more than 40 individual classes to the fall schedule,” he said. “When we can find an adjunct instructor and room to put them in, we add another class.”

Universities are feeling the crush of students, too. Some students who would have preferred to start working on a bachelor’s degree either can’t get in or can’t afford that option.

“Four-year colleges are having to turn away students as well,” said Brian Benedetti, spokesman for Pierce College. “Some who would have gone to a four-year institution are coming to us.”

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