Education

Jobless seek skills in vain at colleges

LAS VEGAS — The gambling economy here has crapped out, but at the swelling community college, workers are in the grip of new aspirations.

In one small anatomy lab, there's a craps dealer training to become an anesthetist, a cocktail waitress who wants to be a dental hygienist, and a former stripper seeking to become a nurse.

"People are always going to be going to the dentist," explained Misty Stevenson, 36, the aspiring dental hygienist, a mother of three and a cocktail waitress for 16 years, explaining her career choice after her income plunged during the downturn.

The trouble is getting a seat in class.

All over the United States, community college enrollments have surged with unemployed and underemployed people seeking new skills.

The Kentucky Community and Technical College System saw the sharpest growth among the state's public institutions during the 2009-10 school year and the past decade. Enrollment at KCTCS increased 6.1 percent during the past year, to 106,500. Its enrollment jumped 79.2 percent during the past decade.

But just as workers have turned to community colleges, states have cut their budgets, forcing the institutions to turn away legions of students and stymieing the efforts to retrain the work force.

Unemployment is highest among the nation's lesser-educated workers, and for them, community colleges offer a critical pathway to new jobs: Classes are open, relatively cheap and often tailored to picking up job skills.

The process of retraining these workers is considered vital to rebuilding the economy.

The institutions are "a gateway for millions of Americans to good jobs and a better life," President Barack Obama said at a community college summit in the fall.

But with waning state budgets, that gateway is narrowing.

Even as community college enrollments have climbed during the recession, 35 states cut higher education budgets last year, and 31 will cut them for next, according to survey data from the National Association of State Budget Officers. Those shortages are expected to worsen next year when federal stimulus money that had plugged holes in state budgets is no longer available.

In California, with a budget cut of 8 percent across the board, the community colleges turned away 140,000 students last year. In Colorado, the waiting lists for nursing programs at some of the state's community colleges have grown to as long as 3½ years. In May, New York's community colleges stopped accepting applications for the fall semester and added students instead to a waiting list.

"It's a personal tragedy for someone seeking the skills to become a nurse or a firefighter or whatever it may be," said California Community Colleges Chancellor Jack Scott. "But in the long run it's a tragedy for the economy."

Here in Las Vegas, among some of the nation's highest in unemployment, the College of Southern Nevada last fall turned away 5,000 students who sought classes that were filled.

For a single biology class, a prerequisite for most of the degrees in the popular health care fields, more than 2,450 students applied for 950 seats. The college now turns away students from every class in biology, the physical sciences and math, said Sally Johnston, dean of the School of Science and Mathematics at the College of Southern Nevada.

"Unfortunately, many say the heck with it and walk away," President Michael Richards said.

Nationally, the tightened budgets have come as the U.S. work force has been falling behind some other countries by some key measures of educational attainment.

In the early 1980s, the United States once led the world in terms of the proportion of young people it graduated from universities. Now it ranks 14th, according to figures from the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development.

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