Three years ago, when Lisa Marraffino got laid off from her accounting job of nearly a decade, it hit her like a body blow.
"It was like a kick in the gut," said the Delran mother of two.
After a few dark months, she discovered a program that restored a measure of hope: Burlington County College had a program that allowed the newly unemployed to enroll tuition-free.
Now Marraffino, 34, is well on her way to an associate's degree and a career as an X-ray technologist.
"Tuition waiver has really helped me," Marraffino said.
Around the region, programs such as Burlington's soon will come to the rescue of even more people.
Montgomery County Community College announced this week that county residents laid off since Sept. 1 will be able to take up to 12 credits tuition-free in the spring semester. Last time the program was offered, from spring 2002 to spring 2004, the school enrolled 271 students.
With the end to a raging recession nowhere in sight, community colleges are adding tuition-waiver programs to help retrain those laid off. And at schools that already have programs, administrators are preparing for increased demand.
Slots are not created for laid-off workers. At Montgomery County, registration will be on a space-available basis beginning Jan. 20, a day before classes start. As with most of the programs, applicants must apply for financial aid, which will not cover books, supplies or other fees.
Last week, Delaware County Community College, which has campuses in Chester County, and Bucks County Community College also instituted tuition-waiver programs for the spring semester.
Interest is running high, report school officials. Delaware County advertised three information sessions for prospective students and within less than a week had added a fourth. The last session will be Monday.
Delaware and Bucks will offer up to 30 free credits - not enough for a degree, but sufficient to earn a professional certificate in many fields.
Certification to become a phlebotomist, for example - a person who draws blood - requires only 16 credits.
"It's our fastest-growing major in the business studies department," said Jean Dolan, a spokeswoman at Bucks.
At Delaware County, tuition-waiver students are restricted to studies in fields that labor experts have identified being in need of workers.
"Our corporate partners in business and industry tell us that, because of people retiring and other reasons, they can't find enough skilled workers," said Marianne Kirby Rhodes, spokeswoman for the Delaware County college.
Fields include automotive technology, child development, computer-aided drafting and design, heating and air conditioning and certain medical and high-level mechanical maintenance areas.
The Community College of Philadelphia has had a tuition-waiver program, Opportunity Now, since 2001. In August, the college launched My Degree Now, a scholarship program for former students who have completed at least 30 credits. While the program is not specifically for the unemployed, administrators believe it may come to their aid.
Samuel Hirsch, a CCP vice president, said the school has seen an increase in people who haven't been laid off, but who are worried. He expects that displaced workers will be next.
"I'm anticipating we'll see a spike," Hirsch said.
In New Jersey, tuition waivers for the unemployed have been available for the better part of two decades. Students won't register until next month, but the school is expecting an increased turnout for the programs.
Burlington County College normally enrolls 50 to 60 waiver students a semester, said Sharon Rogers, associate dean for business development. Indications are that it may have more than 75 in the spring.
Lisa Marraffino remembers too well what it was like to be newly unemployed.
"I know the despair," she said. "It's not just losing your job. I'm a heart-and-soul worker. When I lost my job, I really lost a part of myself."
She knows she's luckier than some. Her husband, an engineer, still has his job, and she works in accounting part-time. But she feels as if she is emerging from a long tunnel.
"Every day when I go to school, I know there's a positive outcome," she said. "I know I'm doing good for myself and the community."
Burlington County College
609-894-9311 or http://go.philly.com/bcc
Camden County College
856-227-7200 or http://go.philly.com/ccc
Gloucester County College
856-415-2212 or http://go.philly.com/gcc
Opportunity Now: 215-751-8193 or http://go.philly.com/opnow
My Degree Now: 215-751-8254 or http://go.philly.com/degreenow
215-968-8161 or http://go.philly.com/bucksccc
610-359-5141 or http://go.philly.com/dccc
Montgomery County Community College
215-619-7334 (central campus), 610-718-1814 (west campus) or http://go.philly.com/mccc