Wednesday September 9, 2009

Cayuga Community College Sees Record Admissions

Value of Higher Education Highlighted in Recession
By Nate McDonald

    Students are back in school, and this year there are a lot more of them at Cayuga Community College (CCC) campuses. The weak economy is credited in large part with driving up college applications.

    Students and their families are looking more and more at the most cost effective methods of pursuing higher education, while unemployed workers are returning to school to further their expertise or learn new disciplines.

    There a few different methods of evaluating enrollment, and all of them show exponential growth for the new school year. Overall enrollment is up 20 percent at CCC. Full Time Equivalent students – combining part time registration into full time slots for a truer picture of enrollment – is up 23 percent at CCC's Auburn campus and 26 percent at the campus in the city of Fulton. Enrollment in online courses has surged by 38 percent.

    “There's no question about it. Both campuses are busting at the seams. We have classes that are not only at capacity but over enrolled, with more students than we might typically put into a course section,” said Dr. Daniel Larson, president of CCC. “If one has room for 25 students we have 28 or 29. We are adjusting seating capacities to make certain we have the ability to accommodate the maximum number of students possible, but keeping it within bounds of being feasible. We don't want them to be overcrowded so its a negative learning environment.”

    While CCC braced itself for an influx of students, they were expecting an 8 to 12 percent increase. A number of new sections have been opened for popular courses. While many campuses are most crowded from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., CCC is close to capacity earlier in the morning and through evening classes as well.

    It is perhaps a tell-tale sign that the programs seeing the highest enrollment are those linked with current job growth. According to Larson, the nursing program at CCC has seen the highest number of new students in the history of the program.

    “We have 66 nursing students in our program this year. That is absolutely as high as it ever has been for the college,” he said.

    Technology programs are also seeing great growth as well. An introductory computer science class was filled up by early August because all of the available computer labs were already scheduled to be used.

    “In our technology programs, we're seeing course numbers that if we've ever seen them that high,it's been the better part of 20 years since we have,” Larson explained.

    Still, the most popular program remains liberal arts and sciences, proof that new students understand the importance of higher education in today's job market, and want to get the best value for the education dollars.

    The growth is due not only to large numbers of incoming freshmen but previously displaced workers changing their career plans as well.

    Enrollment isn't the only area experiencing a surge of interest. Applications for financial aid have increased by 30 percent this year. In fact, CCC has awarded $6 million more for the Fall semester than it spent in financial aid for the entirety of last year.

    “There's no question that the state of the economy is a driver here. We know that families are looking for the best way to expend educational dollars,” Larson said. “We believe there's a lot of concern by students and families about gaining access to higher education that will help their dollar stretch as far as they can.”

    While the economy has certainly contributed to the dramatic rise in admissions, it is part of a larger trend. The affordability and versatility offered by community colleges is becoming increasingly popular with those pursuing higher education.

    “In many ways, community colleges are coming into their own. People recognize that a good way to get started with higher education is to go to your local community college where you won't spend 30 or 40 thousand dollars a year, and yet the quality of the education, teaching and learning experience is comparable and in many ways higher than what you'd find at larger institutions,” Larson explained. “We have senior faculty teaching first year courses. In larger institutions you might find a graduate student teaching those courses who might not have the experience or skill set senior faculty members have.”

    Larson said the challenge now lies with accommodating their students and ensuring their success, whether they are there to improve their grade point averages before returning to a university, fulfill general education requirements, specific job training needs or for an associate's degree.

    “Students come with the entire gamut of goals,” he said. “ Our challenge is to help them be successful so after a couple weeks they don't think its too hard, or can't do it or have too many things going on. Many may try to work too many hours at their job or have family responsibilities or just too many things going on. Retention is a big thing for us, and with these numbers it's compounded.”