Arthur Call commutes three hours roundtrip to his anatomy class at community college because similar courses on campuses closer to his Indianapolis home are packed this semester.
"Classes around the state were just full," says Call, a full-time student who takes the rest of his classes in Indianapolis. "Thank God it’s only Tuesdays. I just have to drive there once a week."
President Barack Obama wants to invest some $12 billion in community colleges with the aim of seeing an additional 5 million students graduate by 2020. This goal comes while many schools are already bursting at the seams with droves of displaced workers hit by the recession competing with traditional students seeking an education bargain.
"All community colleges are not prepared to take on those potentially large numbers of students," said Debra Bragg, a professor and director of the Forum on the Future of Public Education at the University of Illinois.
The Obama administration notes that 5 million more community college graduates doesn’t necessarily mean there will be that many more students — schools could increase graduation rates to reach the goal. And the administration says money from the 10-year initiative to rebuild aging facilities and establish online classes would help schools handle the extra students.
Bragg says the schools’ ability to deal with more students largely comes down to cash.
Much of the money for the nation’s 1,200 community colleges comes from local and state sources. That funding has been hard to come by during the economic downturn, even as enrollment booms. In California, community colleges are struggling to cope with $840 million in budget cuts while enrollment is expected to climb.
Obama’s 10-year initiative would provide a welcome infusion of cash, but some fear it would not sustain community college programs.
"They will be constrained by funding," says Bragg. "It could be potentially extremely challenging if there’s not increased funding at the federal, state and local level to make that happen."
The conundrum comes at a time of intense growth for the more than century-old community college system, which already educates more than half the nation’s undergraduates.
And more young Americans than ever are going to college, particularly community college. A record high of about 11.5 million Americans age 18 to 24, or nearly 40 percent, attended college in October 2008, according to a study of Census data recently released by the Pew Research Center. Almost all of the increase of 300,000 students over the previous year came at two-year schools.
About 12 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds were enrolled in community colleges last year, up from 10.9 percent in 2007.
Enrollment numbers are not yet available for the fall 2009 semester, but the American Association of Community Colleges estimates enrollment is up at least 10 percent over 2008. Some schools have reported increases of 25 to 30 percent.
Michael Hansen, president of the Michigan Community College Association, says classes in popular fields such as nursing require low student-to-faculty ratios and expensive equipment. He is concerned it will be difficult to meet new demand without yet more funding.
"It’s a little bit of a bittersweet pill," Hansen said. "It’s great that people are coming back to community colleges to get trained, but a student only brings about a third of the cost of their tuition."
Ivy Tech Community College President Thomas Snyder says his school can handle more growth in part by finding savings internally and relying on philanthropic and community donations. The school will not expand too much and find itself with empty classrooms if an economic turnaround slows future enrollment.
"We’re cautious in making sure that we don’t make expenditures on staffing, for example, or other critical areas that we can’t sustain," Snyder says.
While officials wait to see whether Obama’s plan will become reality, community colleges are turning to creative — though not always convenient — ways to cope with already large crowds.
Bunker Hill Community College in Massachusetts holds graveyard shift classes that end at 2:30 a.m., while the Community College of Baltimore County in Maryland has converted a student lounge and locker room space into classrooms. Parking shuttles and weekend classes are popping up across the country.
Call, the commuter, could not squeeze into the anatomy class in Indianapolis but was happy to get in at Peru, about 70 miles north of the city. The Army veteran is trying to get his grades up before deciding whether to switch to a pricier four-year school or stay at Ivy Tech.
"I have to take that class," says Call, who passes the time on the road listening to music. "It’s definitely worth it."