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Academic Surge Hits Campuses

Posted: June 15, 2009
by Daniel Barrick

Casey Dunn doesn't miss the early mornings, the sore backs and the inconsistent wages of his old life. Until recently, Dunn, 32, had spent a decade working construction, mostly on steel structures such as garages and warehouses. It was an exhausting, unreliable career.

"By the time you get home, you're so dead tired, you can't do anything," Dunn said.

With the construction industry slumping, Dunn, who lives in Penacook, tried to make ends meet with painting and other odd jobs. But he was still just earning enough to scratch by, so he and his wife decided a new plan was in order. This spring, he signed up for a full slate of classes at NHTI in Concord, hoping to earn enough credits to become a teacher.

"School just seems like the best option now," Dunn said. "The way the job market is now, it just makes sense to have college behind you."

Dunn is among a new wave of students surging into New Hampshire's community colleges amid the economic downturn. Applications to the state's seven community college campuses are up by double-digit percentages and show no signs of slacking.

At NHTI, there's been a record increase in the number of students taking summer courses, up 22 percent over last summer. Applications for the fall semester are up nearly 40 percent in Concord, 60 percent at Manchester Community College and 40 percent at Lakes Region Community College in Laconia.

"Business is booming," said Chuck Kusselow, director of admissions at River Valley Community College in Claremont. "We are very busy."

The colleges are benefiting from two trends tied to the sluggish economy. Students who hope to earn a four-year bachelor's degree are turning to the community colleges to get the first two years of study under their belt for relatively low cost. The community colleges are also seeing more people turning to them to pick up a new trade or learn skills that will help them weather the recession.

"Some of the older students we're getting back, their career area is in jeopardy and they're looking for something new to take them right up to retirement," said Tom Foulkes, vice president for continuing education at NHTI.


A Study in Practicality

According to college administrators, the new students are taking a practical approach in selecting their courses. Programs in growing industries, such as health and computer sciences, are increasingly popular, as are some traditional vocational courses that students hope will guarantee recession-proof employment.

"We're seeing a lot of growth in our technical programs, in welding, HVAC," said Jan Phelps of Manchester Community College. "They are programs where the jobs can't go overseas, and you'll always need somebody to do your plumbing and take care of climate control in a building."

At River Valley Community College, the school's proximity to the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center makes health courses especially popular. Programs in respiratory therapy, physical therapy assistance and phlebotomy are among the most in demand.

"The economy does drive what people look for," Kusselow said. "It's common for people to ask if there are jobs in a certain area. Some of them are in their 40s and 50s, and they're retooling their careers. They're scared, and they need to come up with something to pay their bills. And with those programs, even in bad times, people feel they can find jobs."


Building Booms

Those new crowds are also having an impact on the campuses. NHTI in Concord will soon open a new building to house its nursing program. To meet a rise in demand for car repair courses, the Manchester school plans to open a new automotive training center this fall. River Valley Community College recently unveiled a new library, and the Nashua Community College plans to expand its automotive technology building and add a new health sciences building.

The changes also reflect the marketing and rebranding campaigns the colleges have undertaken in the past two years, after a change in the way the community college system was governed. The system's board of trustees now has more authority over how the colleges are run, with less direct state oversight. But with that shift came changes in the names and logos of each college. The goal was to give each campus its own identity and to strengthen the ties between each school and its community.

Likewise, the schools have been using technology more aggressively to seek out younger students. Several campuses have accounts on Facebook and Twitter, recruiting teens on their own turf. Most of the school's have close ties to local high schools, and they're spending less on direct-mail brochures and more on cable commercials that direct potential students to the college's website.

Attracting students fresh out of high school is part of the system's goal to offer a comprehensive educational experience that provides students the foundation for a four-year degree. But without steady investment from the state, balancing those students with those seeking technical skills or mid-career changes will be a challenge, said William Simonton, former commissioner of the state community college system.

"If you're going to rebuild our economy, you've got to make that investment," Simonton said.


Studying to Teach

For Dunn, returning to school last spring after 15 years out of the classroom came as a bit of a shock at first.

"My first class was 3½ hours long," he said. "I'd never sat still for that long before."

A father at 17 and married at 18, Dunn joined the Air Force right out of high school. Few of his family members had finished high school, Dunn said, and his own rebellious streak kept him from considering college as a serious option.

He and his wife have two daughters, ages 15 and 4. Dunn said he decided to go to school in part to help provide a better life for his younger child. He was inspired to pursue teaching by a nephew's troubling experiences in high schools in Manchester and Boston. But the choice was also a practical one.

"Schools are always going to be there," Dunn said. "They'll always need teachers."

His courses began last spring with a hefty dose of the basics: algebra, intro to English, computer programs. This summer he's taking courses in sociology and psychology. He spends 20 hours a week in class, with plenty of homework afterward. Dunn's wife is in the military and based in South Korea, so child-care responsibilities also take a lot of his time.

His older daughter is already preparing for her own college career, he said. Last semester, Dunn asked her to read over one of his English papers.

"I just want to finish school before she does," he said.