It's midmorning at Durham Technical Community College, and students stream in for classes.
Drivers creep around the big campus parking lot, but there is no space to be found. In the main library, the computer stations are occupied. One floor down, a worker is converting a study room into another computer lab.
And on the campus website, a banner headline pleads: "Please give us your suggestions about how to reduce the budget!"
Community colleges across North Carolina are jammed with record numbers of students, some of them laid-off workers hoping to retool for new careers. In the past three years, the 58-campus community college system has added the equivalent of 50,000 full-time students - an increase of 25 percent.
But during the same period, per-student state funding has slid 12 percent. And the coming year could present challenges unlike any the community colleges have seen. Like other state agencies, the colleges have been asked to prepare plans for budget cuts of 5 percent to 10 percent.
"Community colleges have long been used to doing more with less," said Wanda Maggart, senior vice president at Durham Tech. "We need to explain to people this is a very different time."
Community colleges have an open-door admissions policy, and they hesitate to limit enrollment to save money. Because their mission is in part to train and retrain the state's work force, they are expected to educate more people when the economy goes south. So the state budget crisis looms large, even in a week when the colleges were highlighted as a success story in President Obama's State of the Union address.
Scott Ralls, president of the system, puts the numbers in perspective. The system has a state-funded budget of $1 billion; a 10 percent reduction would mean cutting $100 million. Even if the colleges raised tuition by $10 a credit hour (the rate is now $56.50 per credit hour), that would generate $40 million, leaving a $60 million gap, Ralls said. That's the equivalent of the budget for Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, he said.
Money for growth
The top priority will be to get full funding for the system's additional students - $34 million. But Ralls and other leaders know that although community colleges enjoy bipartisan support in the legislature, securing enrollment growth money won't be easy this year.
"We've never not been successful, but we've never faced a year like this before," Ralls said. "It's our biggest fear."
Beyond enrollment money, the system hopes to receive $6 million for equipment upgrades and $12 million for summer programs. As it stands now, the colleges charge more for summer courses to cover the cost.
A tuition increase is inevitable - something that worries struggling students on the low end of the economic scale.
"I don't understand," said Casandra Allen, 20, of Chapel Hill, who studies criminal justice at Durham Tech. "You want us to better our education ... but you're cutting us?"
Students keep coming
Campuses have recently enlarged classes, increased instructors' workloads and added online sessions when classrooms reach capacity. At Wake Technical Community College, the student population has swelled by nearly 12 percent this semester over last year, after increases of 12 percent the year before and 13 percent the year before that.
"It's a tough situation," said John Saparilas, dean of admissions and outreach at Wake Tech. "I'm kind of on pins and needles about what the legislature is going to do, because the students are not going to stop coming."
They came in force to Randolph Community College during the worst of the recession. From fall 2008 to fall 2009, enrollment jumped 20 percent.
Because community college enrollment is funded on a one-year delay, Randolph and others could barely handle the surge. They couldn't hire more faculty because they didn't have the money. So they pushed their instructors to take on a heavier teaching load - some taught as many as eight courses in a semester.
That drew the scorn of the college's accreditors, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which warned the college of the possible loss of accreditation. But there was little choice, said Robert Shackleford, president of Asheboro-based Randolph.
"I'm not going to turn anyone away in this economy," Shackleford said. "We took a beating for doing the right thing."
Things have improved since then. Last year, the community college system received its enrollment growth money for the previous year.
Randolph hired more instructors. It will also benefit from a sales tax hike in Randolph County that will help pay for renovations to an abandoned furniture factory. The college will set up new classrooms there in a building that once housed good-paying manufacturing jobs.
Shackleford hopes to be lifted from the accreditors' warning this year. But he worries about what will happen as the legislature grapples with the current $3.7 billion budget hole.
"We're going to have the carpet pulled right out from under our feet," he said.
Beyond the crisis
Ralls is encouraging community colleges to think beyond the crisis. "If we're not careful," he said, "that's all we'll think about, and we'll miss some of the long-term things that are very important for our system."
Some colleges are looking elsewhere for money. Several plan to apply for a slice of $2 billion in grants for expanded work-force training programs from the U.S. Department of Labor.
Meanwhile, students wait for news on the immediate financial outlook.
Fathia Gyamfi, who came to the United States from Ghana, studies nursing at Durham Tech. Her husband is a researcher at N.C. Central University.
"I think education is something that is very important," she said. "It's like an investment, so I don't see why [lawmakers] should take money out of it.
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