After losing students for years, the Maricopa County Community College District's class rosters grew this spring, particularly on its south East Valley campuses. Countywide, the colleges increased enrollment by more than 4 percent, district data for the semester shows.
After losing students for years, the Maricopa County Community College District's class rosters grew this spring, particularly on its south East Valley campuses.
Countywide, the colleges increased enrollment by more than 4 percent, district data for the semester shows.
Chandler-Gilbert Community College recorded one of the most significant jumps in the past year, the equivalent of 368 full-time students. And Mesa Community College, which lost about 2,000 students the previous three years, expanded by nearly the same amount as CGCC.
Just two years ago, seven out of the district's 10 colleges saw their student populations shrink.
Those declines signaled a crisis for a system accustomed to steady, if not astronomical, growth that made the district Arizona's largest education system with more than 120,000 students.
Several campuses, including Mesa and Scottsdale Community College, created task forces to find ways to reverse the trend.
"All of the colleges have been working for the last couple of years to address the turnaround and to improve," said Bruce Peterson, MCC faculty president and a communications professor. "Especially customer service before students get to the classroom, because registration at any institution is difficult."
Ultimately, district faculty and administrators credit the economy for their additional pupils.
Community colleges' often enroll more students during times of economic strain. Layoffs turn many workers into students searching for new skills and certifications.
Arizona's economy is in a historic slump, with its most critical industry - construction, especially homebuilding - at a near standstill. Unemployment in the Phoenix metropolitan area was at 7.2 percent in March, 3.3 percentage points higher than the year before, according to the state Department of Economic Security.
Unlike universities, community colleges specialize in work force training, a product in heavier demand during recessions.
However, the figures show a large majority of the district's enrollment increase has come from younger students in their late teens or early 20s. These students are mostly taking general education classes like English, math, biology and sociology rather than entering occupational programs.
"Right now, people are looking ahead to a university," said Tom Gariepy, a spokesman for the Maricopa colleges. "And in other cases, there are some vocational courses that are up as well, which is what you'd really expect in this economy."
Academic programs account for more than two-thirds enrollment growth at the Mesa and Chandler-Gilbert colleges, the data shows.
General education classes count toward an associate's degree at a community college or, if a student transfers, toward a bachelor's degree at a university.
Maricopa colleges' classrooms are more crowded because students are remaining enrolled longer, not because of new students. The data shows the number of new students at the Chandler-Gilbert and Mesa colleges actually declined the past year - by about 200 and 650, respectively.
But the number of continuing students surged, more than making up for other declines.
Newer and less traditional Maricopa colleges have at least maintained their enrollment in recent years despite the overall downturn.
The Chandler-Gilbert college, which opened in 1988, swelled as subdivisions replaced the farmland surrounding its main campus. It has 8,800 students this semester, almost half of them enrolled in 12 credit hours, which is considered full time.
Marsha Segerberg, a biology professor at CGCC, said the population boom has transformed the college. Students are flooding into her science courses and other general education offerings.
"It's just astonishing," Segerberg said.