Nahid Akhtar attends classes and has a work-study job five days a week at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. The second-semester freshman is just happy to be in college and always has a smile for visitors to the Health Occupations building at the Jefferson Davis Campus.
After emigrating from Pakistan in 2001, Akhtar had to return to school because of compulsory education laws. She had not attended classes in her native country past elementary school and had been at home for almost five years before moving to the United States. It took her six months to learn the language well enough to feel comfortable in her junior high and high school classes.
Now, less than a year after graduating from high school, she is thriving as a college student. “The first six months I was in school in the U.S., I cried every day,” she said. “I was older than everyone else in my classes. I couldn’t understand what they were saying. I didn’t think I would ever be able to go to college, but my English improved every day, and eventually I caught on to what I had to do in my classes. I ended up doing very well in school.”
Ahktar, who wants to be a chemical engineer, could easily have chosen to attend a university but chose community college instead. Her reasons are two-fold – to save her father money since he is putting her and three of her siblings through college and to make a more comfortable transition into the world of academia. “I was afraid the university would be too hard for me. I needed to take baby steps. I always do well in math and science classes, but I was worried about the others. Here at Gulf Coast, I feel right at home, and I get the personal attention from instructors that I need. Plus, I live close [Orange Grove] and can commute every day, and the tuition is much lower.”
She said her parents are very proud of her for completing high school and attending college. “My father works very hard at the shipyard to support us and put us through college. He even sends money home to my sisters, who got married and stayed behind when we moved to the U.S. My dad is very proud of what I’ve done. He is proud of all of us.”
Cindy Krohn, a sophomore psychology major at Gulf Coast, agrees that community college is an acceptable and desirable alternative to attending a university right away. “I needed to work on a degree so I could increase my income and marketability, I didn’t have the time or the money to waste. Community college seemed a good choice for me.” She added, “There are basic courses you have to take during the first couple of years of college anyway, so it is not necessary to pay the higher tuition costs of a university while getting those classes completed. Plus, I am able to easily commute to and from school each day. That makes my husband and me happy.”
She said that she also likes the smaller classes at Gulf Coast. “The environment is more intimate, and I have gotten to know my instructors here much better than I would have at a university. They are more easily accessible and are always willing to help me if I have a problem. That means a lot to me as a nontraditional student. I was already nervous about returning to college after so many years.”
The short commute to one of eight campuses or centers in the Gulf Coast district of George, Harrison, Jackson and Stone counties makes the idea of community college appealing to many students. Tyler Rogers, a student at the George County Center in Lucedale, was immediately attracted to the idea of staying at home while doing college work. “I am basically a homebody, and having the center so close to my parents’ house was just too easy. I thought about going off to the university, and could have. I just didn’t think like the idea of living in the dorm or in an apartment was that great. Plus, I am saving money this way.”
Rogers, an Office Systems Technology major, has a work-study job and several scholarships that help out with the cost of his education. And with aging parents, he feels better about being closer to home. “I have great instructors at the center who are getting me ready for pursuing a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering. At the same time, I can be close to home for my parents, and I am not draining them financially while in school. It is really the best choice for me.”
The choice these three students made to attend community college is not all that unusual in the current economic climate. As the unemployment rate skyrockets –half of all jobs lost in the nation over the past year vanished in just the month of December– people are becoming more and more concerned about keeping their jobs are a looking for ways to spend less. Community colleges offer them the opportunity to advance their education, retrain or gain new job skills at a lower cost than universities or private colleges. Plus, in Mississippi community colleges are conveniently located within 30 minutes of most students’ homes.
“Mississippi’s 15 community/junior colleges enroll 52.8 percent of the entire undergraduate enrollment of college students in the state, and 70 percent of all college freshmen attend a community or junior college,” said Dr. Eric Clark, executive director of the State Board for Community and Junior Colleges. “Their enrollment continues to climb as the economy declines. New figures indicate a 10.7 percent increase in credit enrollment for spring 2009, compared to spring 2008. This growth surpasses an 8.2 percent increase for fall 2008, compared to fall 2009.”
At Gulf Coast, there has been a spring enrollment increase of 3.4 percent above registration at the same time last year, yet with adjustments for inflation, state support per student at community/junior colleges has decreased 24.9 percent since 2000. Dr. Willis H. Lott, president of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, said community and junior colleges have done more with less. “We are the only segment in education with less funding per student today than we had in fall 1999,” he said.
As the fastest growing segment of higher education in the state, community colleges are stretched to accommodate the increase in students and offer them a quality education. That’s why community/junior college administrators, faculty and students are asking the Mississippi Legislature for $60.3 million in mid-level funding, $128 million for capital improvements and $14.8 million for dropout recovery. Mid-level funding for community college students is midway between per-student funding for K-12 students and regional public university students. Lawmakers passed legislation signed by Gov. Haley Barbour in 2007 that commits the state to mid-level funding.
Lott said fall 2009 enrollment could jump another 10 percent. “That is normal in these types of economic conditions,” he said. “We are asking the leadership in the legislative bodies to commit to making a significant effort to commit to mid-level funding.”
Without that commitment, Lott explained, “instead of adding a 10 percent growth next year, we may have to limit enrollment, denying opportunities for Mississippians to improve their lives. We may have to increase tuition significantly in order to keep our doors open to everyone who comes seeking a better life.”
Last year, community and junior colleges trained more than 150,000 workers for Mississippi employers. Mississippi community and junior colleges rank in the top-four systems in the nation, according to a 2008 Policy Brief by the Rockefeller Institute of Government.
“The very best investment the Mississippi Legislature can make in terms of bringing our state out of this recession and preparing our people for a better quality of life for themselves and their families is to put that money into the community colleges,” he said. “In a recession, enrollment at a community college goes up. And it’s not hard to figure out why. When people lose their jobs or are afraid of losing their jobs, they say ‘I’ve got to make myself more valuable in the market place.’ We’re close to home. We’re convenient, and we’re the people who provide those skills for those 21st century jobs. We’re a great, great value.”
As for the traditional experiences at a university, Rogers, Krohn and Akhtar said they aren’t missing out. “We have the same kinds of student organizations and events as universities do,” Krohn said. “Gulf Coast also has a lot of student diversity. In fact, there’s not only many different cultures but an age diversity here that you don’t see at a university. That’s a valuable experience, especially for young people right out of high school. They need to hear and understand what nontraditional students –students who have lived in the real world– have to bring to the table.”
Akhtar added, “And the instructors are so helpful. They have a real heart for the community and for their students. It shows in their classes and the one-on-one interaction with their students. They strive to help students succeed and to make us all good citizens by encouraging us to do service projects. What more could you ask from an education?”