Many Finding Refuge from Recession in Community Colleges

As the sour economy has taken its toll, more older people are enrolling in community colleges, seeking new job skills or getting help updating their portfolios.

The enrollment increase has been dramatic at Moraine Valley Community College, where officials have seen enrollment reach an all-time high.

The spring semester enrollment of 19,036 marks the first time the Palos Hills college has topped 19,000 students. The number of total credit hours also is up 6 percent, officials said.

Joel La Rocca, 41, of Bridgeview is a flight attendant for a major domestic airline who is enrolled in Moraine Valley’s respiratory health technician program.

"I decided to go back to school because I’m concerned about the economy and the state of the airline industry," he said. "I started taking classes here and there and then decided to study for the health-care field, which is doing better than most other industries right now. People will always get sick, whether there is a recession or not.

"Going back to school is offering me a solid Plan B in a bad economy."

Moraine Valley President Vernon Crawley acknowledged that the weak economy and rough job market are fueling demand for the community college’s job-training services.

"Many of our community members are critically aware that they need a college education to give them a broader array of choices in their career fields and good-paying jobs," said Crawley.

The average student age at Moraine Valley is 26, according to the enrollment figures.

Prairie State College officials also have seen an upswing in enrollment, most likely related to the struggling economy, said spokeswoman Jennifer Stoner.

About 200 people recently attended a workshop information day to learn about job-training certification programs at the Chicago Heights school, which has an enrollment of 5,500. Many attendees said they went because of economic concerns, Stoner said. Some of the more popular offerings are courses in health care, heating, air conditioning, welding and music production, she said. Students enroll in the programs and receive certification after completion; many of the programs take students about 18 months to complete.

Officials at Joliet Junior College have seen a 14 percent increase in enrollment this year for students ages 25 to 30.

"Any time you see a recession … people take stock of their skill set," said Ryan Smith, vice president for institutional advancement and research at the school.

In addition to helping people brush up on their skills and learn new ones, the college also started a career program in July for students age 50 and older, with the help of a grant from the American Association of Community Colleges. The college has provided services to more than 200 students through the program and has seen an increase in enrollment of older students.

Through the workshops, participants can improve their interviewing skills, update their résumés and do online job searches. Participants also receive a tuition waiver for one three-hour credit course by volunteering 10 hours.

"Even though the participants come in for the career workshops, we see that they’re signing on for the long haul," said Kelly Lapetino, workforce skills manager.

She noted that many of the participants come to the program after losing their jobs.

"They’re looking to re-career, retool and re-enter the workforce," she said.

For some people who’ve been out of school for a while, readjusting to academic life can be difficult, as Rabei Hindi has found out.

The 32-year-old student from Oak Lawn is studying in the respiratory health program at Moraine Valley.

"It’s a little bit stressful, going back to school. I’ve got one semester left, but I definitely think health care is the best field to go into with the current economy as it is," he said.

Officials at all three schools said enrollments are rising in general, most likely because of the affordability of junior colleges compared with four-year universities.

To handle the rising numbers and tackle the demands of a fast-changing workforce, Moraine Valley is constructing a job-training center as part of an $89 million campus building program. (Chicago Tribune)

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