Community Colleges See Record Enrollments

Flagstaff, AZ – Across the country college enrollment numbers are way up. In northern Arizona, Coconino, Mohave and Yavapai community colleges are all experiencing record breaking semesters. School administrators say they attribute their success to the unsuccessful economy, and a new breed of students they call "retrainers." Arizona Public Radio's Laurel Morales has the story.

Weston Perkins doesn't look like your typical college student. He's clean- shaven, conservatively dressed and carries a brief case.

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At Coconino Community College's student union he's surrounded by hoody sweatshirts, body piercings, ipods and a thick air of apathy.

Perkins ran his own construction business for several years. But in Flagstaff the construction industry has plummeted by almost 50 percent. So Perkins has decided to trade in his tool belt for a stethoscope and try a different career: nursing.

He says it wasn't easy to go back to school.

PERKINS: It was scary at first. I was a contractor for 15 years to come back to a classroom is a little overwhelming. You have to learn to study and test again. But really I think it's easier now than when I was 18 because I'm more focused on what I want.

What he wants is simple -- to support his wife and four kids.

PERKINS: I always enjoyed helping people and thought this is something I could do that would be rewarding because you're helping someone else and getting paid to do it not getting rich off someone else in a bad way you're giving back.

But that means making some sacrifices right now. His wife is a dental hygienist and plans to pick up more hours. And they had a tough talk with their kids.

PERKINS: Christmases and birthdays aren't going to be big elaborate things anymore. My older boys were actually ok with it. When Christmas time came they said I only need one present. It really touched me they said Dad's doing a good thing for the family and they were on board to help.

Perkins and several of his classmates are what educators like David Minger call "retrainers". Minger is Vice President of Student Affairs at CCC.

MINGER: When the economy runs into trouble very often people go back to colleges and universities for additional training. They often need retraining in different areas they want to improve their resumes, get a different skill set for a different area of work.

So-called "retrainers" are a big reason why CCC'S enrollment is up 20 percent.

Mohave Community College is also seeing a jump in enrollment. Chancellor Mike Kearns says the jobs his students can get are recession proof.

KEARNS: Many of the career and technical education jobs for example dental hygiene, nursing, surgical technician, auto service technician, welder you can get a very good job with an associates degree. You can be the major breadwinner of a family.

During tough economic times universities typically see enrollment numbers go up as well. But CCC's David Minger says community colleges see even more students because they don't have selective admission requirements and their classes cost less.

But both universities and community colleges are seeing high enrollment numbers at the same time they're experiencing funding cuts from the state.

MINGER: The very troubling thing is that at a time when we see communities needing their colleges more than ever we see that through the increased enrollment. At the same time that enrollment demand is going up the state funding is going down.

Community college budgets aren't getting cut as deep as universities. Still, Minger says no cut is easy to make.

And he says if you look at the big picture the investment should pay off for the state. Graduates typically get higher paying jobs and therefore pay higher taxes.

MINGER: If you spend say $100,000 as a state on higher education the people who take advantage of that and get higher degrees they will pay back far more than that $100,000 in additional tax revenues to their states and communities.

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Amy Kreutzer is in Weston Perkins' anatomy lab. She's a single mother of three who used to do hair and nails. She says people are cutting back on their beauty routine. So she chose to study nursing because it's a more stable field.

KREUTZER: It's hard because of my kids and I don't really have a support system. And sometimes I want to give up and say I want go back to work but there are no jobs. I think the investment will return to me eventually one day so that's what I look forward to.

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But Kreutzer and her classmates are working toward their nursing degrees at a time when the slumping economy has caused Flagstaff Medical Center to stop hiring new nursing students. So their jobs may not be as recession proof as they thought.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.