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Community colleges caught between costs and enrollments

The announcement for Burlington County College's job fair yesterday was enticing: "Numerous full and part-time positions are available." And that's no exaggeration.

Applicants wait for their interview at Burlington Community College.(Akira Suwa /Staff Photographer )
Applicants wait for their interview at Burlington Community College.(Akira Suwa /Staff Photographer )Read more

The announcement for Burlington County College's job fair yesterday was enticing: "Numerous full and part-time positions are available."

And that's no exaggeration.

With enrollment for the fall semester expected to grow by double-digit percentages, the college plans to identify up to 200 new adjunct faculty members, increasing its part-time teaching force to about 575, said Kathleen Carter, vice president for academic affairs.

The hiring splurge and influx of students come as the college faces a cut of up to $5 million, or 42 percent, in its funding from the county, and flat funding from the state.

Having to serve more with less is a challenge that community colleges locally and nationally are facing this year in a troubled economy.

"This type of growth is unprecedented," said Karen Stout, president of Montgomery County Community College, which expects its 13,000-member student body to jump 24 percent in the fall.

The schools absorbed large increases in new students this spring, and many are seeing even more this summer and projecting similar spikes for the fall.

Displaced workers, students transferring from four-year schools, and others seeking less costly options are fueling the spurt.

"We don't see any end in sight," said Norma Kent, vice president of communications at the American Association of Community Colleges.

Spring enrollments rose between 4 percent and 26 percent, an association survey found. Colleges are hiring as many new faculty as they can afford, holding more courses off site, online, and during weekends and evenings - and raising tuition.

Some, though none locally, are capping enrollment.

But growth has been so fast at Montgomery County's college that students might encounter a de facto cap if they can't get the courses they need.

"We're not saying we're capping it, but we might begin to not open up new sections when we know there are still students who are in need of being served," Stout said.

The school's full-time faculty will teach extra courses for more pay, and the college will hire more adjuncts. Sections are being added in off-peak hours, and classes are loaded to capacity, she said.

She worries there might not be enough parking spaces.

She wonders how the support staff can continue to handle the load, including more requests for financial aid.

And she feels bad for students who will have much more difficulty scheduling courses and could be shut out of science classes because labs are not available.

"We are filled between 8 a.m. and noon on both campuses. There's not one space that isn't being taken," Stout added.

The school is raising tuition 3.5 percent and hoping $1 million cut from county funding this year will be restored for 2009-10, she said.

At Bucks County Community College, spring enrollment surged more than 10 percent. Summer's is up 18, and fall's is projected to be up 8.

The school will add part-time faculty and enlist full-timers to teach more courses, president Jim Linksz said.

The school, which plans to hold tuition steady and get by on slight increases in county and state funding, has enough space and support staff to adjust, he said.

But Linksz cautioned: "You couldn't sustain what we're doing for the long term without some changes."

He's concerned that a slow economic recovery might force that reality.

At Gloucester County College, enrollment for the first summer session rose 17 percent, with a 28 percent jump forecast for the second. Fall enrollment is running 14 percent ahead, spokeswoman Gina Redrow said.

"We're seeing the greatest increase in science," she said.

The school has added 50 adjuncts since last summer, increasing adjunct staff to 240. And because of the need for more space, it has scheduled more than 30 afternoon classes at an adjacent high school - up from only a handful the year before, Redrow said.

Delaware County Community College also anticipates a double-digit enrollment increase for the fall. It plans to hire full-time temporary faculty, add weekend and evening classes, and increase online course opportunities, president Jerry Parker said.

Community colleges in Camden County and Philadelphia also forecast increases.

But none of the schools is planning a hiring spree quite like Burlington's.

While it has had job fairs before, yesterday's was the biggest, Carter said. It drew 167 applicants, many of them current or recently retired school administrators and teachers and some who waited an hour or more for an interview with college personnel.

Among them was Anne Miglin, an elementary school reading specialist in the Maple Shade School District who wants to add college classes.

"I'm a great team player. . . . I'm always trying to improve myself, so I see myself as a student also," she assured her interviewer.

Chris Pfister, a marketing-software professional who was laid off in December, had dreamed of trying teaching.

"Now I have the time, aside from my job search," said Pfister, of Morristown, N.J.

Valencia Sherrer, a federal parole officer who teaches at another local college, hopes to add to her class load. A treatment specialist, she works by day with drug- and sex-offender cases.

"Teaching is a relaxation tool," said Sherrer, of Pemberton Township.

Burlington is searching for teachers of all subjects, including math, biology, chemistry, business, engineering, foreign languages, and education, Carter said. Applicants generally need a master's degree, although exceptions are made for those with extended work experience and those teaching remedial courses, she said.

The need is great because the school has only 60 full-time faculty and 10 vacancies among them due to departures. Because searches and hiring for full-time faculty take time, not all will be filled by the fall, Carter said.

It is more cost effective, she said, to add adjuncts than to expand full-time hires. A full-timer costs about $100,000 in salary and benefits.

Community colleges nationally already use adjuncts for about half their classes, and their use is rising at all kinds of colleges, experts said.

"It tends to be a less expensive hire and a more flexible hire," said John Ikenberry, president and cofounder of "Colleges can staff up or staff down, depending on changes in enrollment."

In the first quarter of 2009, 11 percent of all higher-education jobs posted to the group's Web site were adjunct or part-time, up from 8 percent in 2006, he said.

Union officials, however, caution that too many adjunct faculty can erode the quality of teaching and that full-time faculty tend to be more committed to the school, available to students, and qualified.

"We are concerned about what's going on at Burlington," said Kathryn Coulibaly, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Education Association, which includes the faculty union at Burlington.

Carter, Burlington's academic-affairs vice president, said the school paid adjuncts to take teacher training and offers continued support. Adjuncts, she added, improve the college environment: "They bring a real-world experience to our students that's vital in today's changing work environment."

Last spring, the college served more than 9,000 full- and part-time credit students, including about 100 who had transferred from four-year schools, she said. Enrollment is expected to grow to about 10,000 this fall, she said.

The college will use $3 million from its reserve fund and plans to raise tuition $8 per credit, or about 10 percent, to meet expenses. But officials hope more county funding will come through to avoid such a steep increase.

Burlington County is considering restoring some of the funding; freeholders will decide by the end of the month, spokesman Ralph Shrom said.

The college plans to begin placing the newly hired adjuncts within a week. The job pays $1,800 per three-credit course. Adjuncts typically teach two courses, Carter said.

Recently retired math teacher Linda Locke of Voorhees smiled big as she left the fair.

"I believe I got a position," she said. "I really miss teaching the students."