Recent high school graduates and mid-career adults are flocking to community colleges this fall as California campuses report enrollment jumps tied to the weak economy.
Administrators say that when the economy dips, enrollment at community colleges typically surges. This fall, students are banking on these modest workhorses of California's higher education system to ease their way through the economic downturn, opting for the closer, cheaper alternatives to state universities. Older students, in particular, are seeking training at two-year colleges to escape declining industries.
"There's a sense of urgency in students to further their education at this time," said Jennifer Coto, chairwoman of the counseling department at Santiago Canyon College in Orange, which is seeing an estimated jump of 9% this fall, notably among returning adult students. "Professionals that are now part of struggling industries are utilizing this time for the next upsurge."
Real estate agent Jeannie Rothfuss decided to return to school for the first time in decades when the housing market soured. She chose the community college just over the hill from her Anaheim Hills home.
At $20 a unit, Santiago Canyon College was far more affordable than going to a state school or paying for online courses at $500 each. And she plans to transfer to Cal State Fullerton to earn a communications degree that she hopes will qualify her for a sales or marketing job.
"People weren't buying houses, people couldn't qualify for loans, said Rothfuss, 59, now in her second semester at Santiago Canyon College. "By going to school at least I know that by a certain month I will have accomplished something, whether it's a sale or credits from college."
Officials are estimating enrollment jumps of 6% to 15% this fall at California's 110 two-year campuses, where about 2.7 million students take courses, many of them part time.
Although the growth is uneven and some colleges could see no boosts, Erik Skinner, vice chancellor for fiscal policy for the California Community Colleges, said, "It's an early indication we're stepping into a period of robust growth, and districts are telling us high unemployment rates are a significant driver in this increase."
Bread-and-butter considerations also play into decisions to go to two-year colleges, with students viewing a school close to home as a way to save on gas and rent, as well as tuition. In addition, undocumented students who can't get financial aid also rely on community colleges.
The increase in the student population has meant classes at Santiago Canyon College have been filled beyond capacity, and not just with recent high school graduates -- referred to as "13th-graders" by some career counselors.
"There are dads in my English 101 class," said Evelyn Villavicencio a first-semester student there, who said she chose the nearby college over the initial objections of her parents. They wanted her to go to a four-year university, but she saw Santiago Canyon as a way to save on expenses while enjoying small classes.
Overflow from state universities might also account for some of the growth at two-year schools.
Facing an enrollment boost of its own, California State University closed the freshman application period early this year, cutting off an estimated 10,000 fall students.
"That may be putting pressure on the community colleges," said Jim Blackburn, director of enrollment management services at the office of the chancellor.
Blackburn said that although 40% of Cal State students receive fee waivers, the cost could be another reason students turn to the two-year schools -- they're cheaper.
Although most community campuses welcome the burst of interest, they also acknowledge a strain on resources. In the short term, officials said community colleges can absorb the cost of educating more students, but by next spring or fall they will have to receive more funding or they may be forced to cut back course sections.
With the governor's proposed budget allowing for only 2% growth, many colleges are anticipating funding shortfalls.
Their open enrollment policy makes community colleges the schools that can't say no.
"We're sitting in an area that's economically depressed, and we're not turning anyone away," said Los Angeles Southwest College president Dr. Jack E. Daniels III. Enrollment at his campus is up an estimated 12%, with gains in both recent high school graduates and older students. "We're getting people trained and retrained for the work force," he said.
Theresa Martinez, 24, signed up at Los Angeles City College after realizing that her degree in social work from UC Berkeley would command only mediocre wages in the tough economy. Now she is retraining as a nurse.
"When I get off work, I come here," she said. Her job at a media research firm starts at 4 a.m. "So I don't get much sleep. But I tell myself I went to Berkeley, so I can do it."