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Recession Refugees: COCC scrambles as laid-off workers turn to the classroom 

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Archie Hamilton, a 45-year-old student at Central Oregon Community College, describes himself as a dislocated worker. He's spent most of his adult life in the wood industry, primarily as a mill worker, but his last job was with Bend's Host Industries building motor homes and campers. Last summer, when gas prices peaked out and the economy nosedived, Hamilton, went to the Oregon Employment Department to apply for benefits and to find work using the state's iMatchSkills jobs database, only to discover that there were only 200 job openings posted across the state.

"I was told at the unemployment office that all of the skills I had were really tough to match with a job," Hamilton said. "I had a friend who had gone back to school in addiction studies at COCC and he talked me into filling out forms for grants and applying to get into school."


COCC's crowded campus is now brimming with students like Hamilton - people who have lost their job and are turning to college with the hope of completing a certificate or degree and increasing their chances of jump-starting a career. Enrollment is at an all-time high, and it's putting the squeeze on campus operations (COCC is even running out of parking permits and there is a concern that it will run out of course catalogs, too). Through the end of the fall 2008 term there were 5,400 students enrolled in classes, up from the previous high of 4,720. Financial aid disbursements increased about 70 percent from winter 2008 to winter 2009, COCC Director of College Relations Ron Paradis said.

Even more telling is the number of students enrolled in specific certificate or transfer degree programs, up 45 percent from the 2007-08 academic year: the Automotive Technology program jumped from 38 to 88 students; Aviation - Professional Pilot went from 47 to 85; Addiction Studies from 24 to 43; Criminal Justice from 59 to 84; Dental Assisting from 43 to 71; and the EMS program expanded from 68 to 145 students, Paradis said.

COCC Student and Community Outreach Coordinator Shannon Turner said she is meeting a lot of people who have worked for 20 or 30 years and never been without a job, until recently, who are looking into returning to school.

"They are surprised at how hard it is to find work in Central Oregon right now," Turner said. "Even people with bachelors degrees are exploring options with technical degrees. It's tough out there, and it's been especially tough in outlaying communities. Layoffs have been going on, and although Bend has not felt it as much, Madras, Prineville and Warm Springs are already suffering, and unemployment insurance does run out. Before someone jumps into taking out loans and going into debt I try to encourage folks to look at the big picture. If someone is going to spend the time and money and borrow to go to school they really need to make sure it creates value for them. For people with low incomes or no incomes it's becoming harder to complete a one year program in one year."

Patricia Roberts, 31, receives financial aid and has been in school for one full term but is beginning to worry about the future because her disbursement check doesn't cover 100 percent of college costs, not to mention the money it takes to put gas in her car to get to and from school. "Even so I have to find a way to make it work because all I have is my GED, which means I am only qualified for low-paying jobs and definitely not a career," she said.

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COCC Director of Admissions and Registrar Aimee Metcalf said the crumbling economy is definitely the reason for the increase in enrollment. Numbers released by the state Monday showed Deschutes County's December unemployment rate at 11.3 percent, up 1.5 percent from just a month earlier, and more than double what it was at the peak of the housing boom. The outlook is even grimmer in neighboring counties where jobs have been shed in housing, manufacturing, and retail as the economy spirals downward. Crook County's unemployment rate was 14 percent for December and Jefferson County wasn't far behind at 13.3 percent. For many new students more education is the answer - at least in the short term.

"We're seeing students coming in, many who had been working in the construction industry, looking to do some retraining," Metcalf said. "A lot of people are looking for skills and career fields that are more recession proof."

The most popular choice seems to be a nursing degree, and COCC is falling far short of meeting demand. Metcalf, who also oversees the selection process for the nursing program, said COCC only admits 36 students per year into the degree track, and usually has about 135 applications. Currently, however, several hundred students have declared themselves nursing majors, although the majority will have to change their major before completing their studies.

"Some students apply multiple times and do not make it into the program," Metcalf said. "Obviously we have many more qualified applicants than we can serve. I encourage students to apply to every degree they may qualify for, but I still see students get frustrated and leave school or change majors. It's really frustrating, especially when you hear that nationally there is an increase in the need for qualified health care providers and we are not able to serve that need. Right now we don't even have the lab space available to admit more students, and we also are having trouble recruiting nursing faculty members.

"Generally, faculty members in that field make a lot more money by working in the field rather than teaching," she said. "We were really hoping that last November's bond measure would help us be able to recruit and retain additional faculty members, but it didn't happen."

A large chunk of the $43.75 million bond on last November's ballot would have been used to pay for a new health and sciences center, as well as to hire additional full-time faculty to meet demand brought on by the enrollment spike. The bond would have increased property taxes by 2.8 cents per $1,000 of assessed value, or about $24 annually for a home assessed at $200,000, but it was shot down by 53 percent of voters. As of right now, Paradis said, COCC is projecting its property tax collections will be down $450,000, largely due to an increase in local foreclosures, dropping the school's budget from about $11.5 million to $11.1 million. However, the increase in tuition, up from $8 million to $9.1 million, offset some of that decrease.

"But another similar decrease would pretty much wipe out the tuition revenue increase," Paradis said.

COCC President Jim Middleton said it is going to be extremely difficult over the next two years to continue to keep up with growth and to serve the needs of students if enrollment continues to increase.

"Right now, there is a big crunch as far as our advising and counseling staff, enrollment staff and faculty goes," Middleton said. "We had to add predominantly part-time staff members, which puts considerable demand on the department heads for hiring supporting staff."

Metcalf said the admissions department has extended its hours to serve students, and that it is having to rely on work study students to assist and manage operations that the existing staff doesn't have time to oversee.

"I would say our staff is pretty exhausted at this point," she said. "It's definitely been a tough couple of terms because the enrollment increase happened so quickly that we weren't able to ramp up and add new staff to keep up. Fortunately we were fully staffed going into the fall term. We saw the growth coming and did some things to make work more efficient."

Overcrowding is also resulting in classroom space being at a premium. As recently as last year, departments were able to add a course in the first week of classes and find a classroom where students could meet, but those days are over, Middleton said.

"We are virtually packed right up to our maximum right now," he said. "We are having now to really look at every possible available space and consider it for classroom renovation. In one instance we turned a large store room in the library into a classroom. Our faculty has been gracious and caring in taking in students above the standard classroom size, but soon we will reach a point where physically we can't get any more people into rooms and we won't have the space to add additional classes. Our chances of turning away new students will greatly increase over next couple of years, which is part of the reason why we are considering looking at a second opportunity with a facility bond."

Even if COCC had enough room to expand the number of available classes in the interim, Oregon has run out of money for college grants. Funds available for full-time students for spring 2009 will be cut by $80 per student, and $40 for part-time students. And the state stopped awarding grants in December leaving about 1,500 students on the waiting list, a majority of whom are community college students, according to the Oregon Student Association.

COCC student Tom Brown, who spent the past several years working locally at an auto body shop and in the construction industry, said returning to college to finish his bachelor's degree is still a priority, even with available financial aid being cut.

"Between my desire to go back to school and the economy going into a nose dive its perfect timing to finish my degree, even if it means I have to get creative with spending in every aspect of day-to-day living," Brown said. "The sad thing is, even with a new degree it may be difficult to find a job locally in my chosen major. There are six or seven adolescent (addiction) treatment centers in Central Oregon, so I hope to be able to stay here. The biggest thing for me is being able to get some entry level experience before I finish college. I have high hopes for the future but at the same time I am a realist and can see that the job market is looking pretty grim. I'm just thankful I was able to get into school because there are a lot of people on waiting lists this year."

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