Butte College is experiencing an "unprecedented" increase in enrollment, according to college officials.
Fall 2008 semester enrollment at the community college increased by 13 percent and officials are predicting another increase of 12 to 16 percent for the Spring 2009 Semester which starts Jan. 26.
"For the previous three years, up until last semester, we had a managed decline in enrollment. We removed some elements of our curriculum to assure quality and integrity in the curriculum. We also reduced our schedule our schedule by 10% to manage our instructional dollars more wisely and to boost our efficiency. We did predict an enrollment increase for last semester but, I thought it would be 5 percent and the registrar thought it would be 3 percent. We were all shocked when it was 13 percent. We had to scramble to accommodate all of the new students," said Ken Meier, Butte College Vice President for Learning and Economic Development.
Meier credits the upswing in enrollment to two factors: good marketing and the bad economy.
"We've done a good job marketing the college and recruiting students. People recognize our community college offers the best value for their educational dollars. We're offering the same classes, taught by the same caliber of faculty you would find at a UC or a CSU on the lower division level," said Meier. "Typically, community college enrollment is counter cyclical. When the economy is down, unemployment is up and enrollment increases because people have the time to return to school to earn a degree or to retrain."
To accommodate the surge of students last fall, the college hired four new full-time faculty members for the most impacted instructional areas - communications/speech, math, basic skills and English - as well as one temporary full time instructor for biology. An additional 40 new part-time faculty members were also hired.
The college is anticipating another enrollment increase to nearly 12,000 students for the Spring 2009 semester, compared to the approximately 9,600 students enrolled in the Spring 2008 semester. Two more full-time professors for biology and chemistry as well as another 10 part-time instructors will be hired for next year to address continuing enrollment growth.
"We're trying to stay ahead of the curve; serve the students and keep our productivity up. With a 13 percent increase in students, 50 new faculty members isn't a lot," said Meier.
In addition to hiring more teachers, the college has also added 51 additional "sections," or classes, for the spring semester and increased the average number of students each full time faculty member is serving by two, representing a 10 percent increase in enrollment per section and an 8 percent increase in faculty productivity.
More than classes are being impacted by the influx of students. Other services including tutoring, counseling, intake assessment, orientation, disabled student services, computer labs and transportation, among others are being strained beyond current capacity.
"All of our support services are impacted. The counselors are working over time and doing an excellent job to address students' needs under incredible pressure. We're looking to expand the computer commons in the library by 30 or more computers. Our bus transportation system is already at capacity. We're working on contingency plans including adding vans, reworking routes and pushing some sections to the afternoon to take some pressure off the morning which is our busiest time," said Meier.
"Additionally, we've seen an increase in the number of students applying for and receiving financial aid," according to Meier.
"Our financial aid staff is working long hours to help students apply for and receive financial aid. It's vital we help students succeed and we want to help them afford college," he said.
State funding could impact the college since the state caps enrollment growth funding at 3 percent Meier says the college may not receive funding for 10 percent of its new students and that, he says, "could be an issue" for the college.
"I believe we'll have substantial growth again next year especially since both the CSU and UC systems are diverting students because they have to reduce their enrollment. Plus more middle class families are seeing the equity in their homes disappear and their investment portfolios declining so they're thinking maybe the kids should stay home for two more years and attend the community college because it's a lot less expensive," said Meier. "But, we can't continue to grow at this rate with flat or declining revenue."
While admitting there may be financial pressure on the college in the future, Meier also says the growth is exciting and the institution is financially sound.
"It's a great time for the college but we're going to have to work more creatively, smarter and harder to accommodate all of the students who are coming to us," said Meier. "Fortunately Butte College is a financially healthy college. Other community colleges in the state are turning away thousands of students. We're committed to serving our community and finding classes for all of our students. We're not turning anyone away, if we can help it. Some students will find it harder, however, to get exactly the right class, when and where they want it. I advise them to register early, check the waitlists everyday and to develop contingency plans for pursing their goals."