Cassandra Stricker worked in retail for 13 years then made a switch to her dream job as a flight attendant.
But when the economy took a nose dive last year, the Highland Heights woman was laid off by Comair and couldn't find another job. So, at age 39, Stricker went back to school, enrolling at Gateway Community and Technical College in Northern Kentucky to become a nurse.
"I never would have thought I'd have to find a third career in my lifetime," Stricker said. "But there are people all around me doing the same thing. That's why people are looking to community colleges."
And a lot of people are looking to them. In preliminary data, the Kentucky Community and Technical College System is reporting an 11 percent increase in enrollment this fall, a number that may even grow to 15 percent when the final counting is done.
Generally, college enrollment goes up when the economy goes down. But this economic downturn —with an 11 percent unemployment rate in Kentucky — is sending even more people to community colleges to learn new skills in a fast, affordable way.
KCTCS officials estimate a 13 percent increase in enrollment in technical programs such as medical technology and computer programs across the state. They also estimate they've added nearly 1,000 sections of online classes.
The surge also means the system has already met its state goal of 100,000 students by 2010.
"Community colleges really are the venue for the worker to come back and get the education they need," said KCTCS Chancellor Jay Box.
Even traditional students may choose a community college over a four-year school because it's a much cheaper way to get two years of credits before transferring somewhere else for a four-year degree.
"We're still at a price point that's reasonable," Box added. "When times are tough and every dollar counts, their dollar goes a longer way than it would at a university."
In 2008, the cost of 12 credit hours at KCTCS was roughly $1,800, compared to approximately $3,800 for 12 hours at the University of Kentucky, according to figures gathered by the Council on Postsecondary Education.
Gateway is seeing an even division among enrollment for online courses, which have grown more popular in recent years, traditional students and people like Stricker, looking for new skills. Overall, enrollment is up 22 percent.
At Maysville Community and Technical College, preliminary enrollment is up 32 percent. President Ed Story says all the technical programs on all three locations are full.
"Many people out of work want quick training," he said.
Kirk Knott has also noticed a need for speed as a counselor at Bluegrass Community and Technical College in Lexington, where enrollment is up about six percent.
"They're saying 'I need something I can learn in one or two years,'" he said. "Many of these people have financial responsibilities and need to get back to the workforce."
A double-edged sword
The economy has sent enrollment surging, while at the same time it has caused shortfalls in the state revenues that fund colleges. Box said the system is currently dealing with nearly $18 million in cuts since 2008. That means the system has not hired many of the full-time faculty now needed for so many new students.
Tuition typically covers about a third of a community college education's costs, and that's being used immediately to hire part-time instructors where they're needed.
"You can't make a full-time commitment off of tuition increases," Box said. "Some of the colleges have gone ahead and bit the bullet and hired new (full-time) faculty members in hopes it will continue to grow, but it's risky when you don't have the state funds to support it."
Many of the schools have had to increase class size, Box said, and are looking for other creative, no-cost solutions.
For example, in Madisonville, college officials are moving to "hybrid" classes, in which a professor might teach a class on campus one day a week, then teach the others online, allowing another class to use that classroom.
Hazard President Allen Goben said they're using new 12-week courses alongside the typical 16-week courses to help students squeeze more into less time. They're also paying full-time faculty to teach extra classes.
"It's really stretched us financially," Goben said. "But we talk about transforming students' lives and it's how we'll transform the commonwealth."
Some four-year colleges are also experiencing increases in freshman enrollment, which has caused problems in student housing. Western Kentucky University spokesman Bob Skipper said more freshmen want to live on campus, but the bad economy means that more upper level students want to stay there, too, rather than paying for housing off campus.
Eastern Kentucky University has a 6 percent increase in freshman enrollment and a 2 percent increase overall. The University of Louisville is up by only about 100 students, officials said.
University of Kentucky spokesman Jimmy Stanton declined to release any preliminary data on enrollment.
But while four-year schools have tighter controls over admissions, community colleges try to take most of the students who want to come.
Officials hope that state revenues will increase and help them keep up soon.
"We are stretched and stressed," said Maysville President Story. "But I still think we are going to do what the community expects a community and technical college to do."