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Hard Times: Many continue or return to education in downturn

Editor's note: This is the fourth in a series of stories about how the recession has affected the lives of Northern Shenandoah Valley residents.

By James Heffernan -- jheffernan@nvdaily.com

MIDDLETOWN -- Hope Athey arrives early for "College 101," takes a seat at the back of the room and glances over her shoulder as the rest of the group, mostly teenagers and a few parents, shuffles in.

It's the first day of new student orientation at Lord Fairfax Community College for the 2009-10 school year, and the 39-year-old single mom from Winchester is anxious to learn what the halls of higher education have in store.

After a few opening remarks, David Urso, LFCC's coordinator of student life, breaks the ice with a question: "What do you think classes will be like at Lord Fairfax?"

Athey, for one, can't be sure. She got married right out of high school, then stayed home to take care of the couple's young daughter. Twelve years ago, she landed a good job in customer service with a printing company in Sterling, but her position was eliminated in early 2008 in the midst of slumping sales.

Now, with the economy steeped in recession, office work has been hard to come by.

"If I find something, it's only temporary," says Athey, who works part time in the nursery at the local Home Depot to make ends meet.

But the transition to outdoor work has been difficult, she says. "I've had a desk job my whole life."

So Athey recently enrolled at LFCC with the goal of earning a medical insurance billing and coding certificate toward a career in health care administration, a field she says has always interested her. She also is considering adding a medical transcriptionist certification that would allow her to work from home.

Athey says it may take her years to complete the two programs because of other obligations, but she is committed to the task.

"I need to move on with my life."

***

With the downturn in the economy, colleges and universities across the country are reporting unprecedented enrollment increases.

The trend is especially acute at community colleges, as students and their parents seek more bang for their buck and adults, including laid-off workers, look to learn new skills. More than 16,000 new students have flooded the Virginia Community College System over the last two years.

Spring enrollment at Lord Fairfax, with campuses in Middletown and Warrenton and a Luray-Page County Center, was up 9 percent over the same semester in 2008, and the number of full-time-equivalent students -- those taking at least 12 credit hours per semester -- jumped 14 percent.

LFCC President Cheryl Thompson-Stacy says the economy underscores the school's dual mission of access and affordability.

"There's a lot of different factors that play into it, but we certainly see that when people are laid off from their jobs, they need a marketable skill as quickly as possible, and we have a number of students who come to us for that," Thompson-Stacy says. "Plus, we're also getting traditional students whose parents might have sent them to a university and paid their room and board, and they can't afford to do that anymore."

Karen Hart Bucher, LFCC's director of enrollment management, says students are taking advantage of the school's many articulation agreements with Virginia universities, allowing them to complete their liberal studies requirements at Lord Fairfax at a fraction of the cost and then transfer as a junior to a participating four-year institution.

Among returning students, LFCC is seeing significant interest in the health professions, particularly nursing, as well as administrative support technology.

After being out of the work force for more than 20 years, Donna Smallwood, 49, of Woodstock, chose the administrative support tech program as a means of "becoming productive again" and to set a good example for her two children, ages 15 and 17.

"The kids, at first, were in disbelief that I was going to do this. But I think they're kind of proud right now. They're seeing the benefits."

Smallwood says she appreciates the scope of the curriculum, which is geared toward adults and covers basic computer skills, office software, proofreading and professional development.

"The professors are really good. They're very patient and really get you thinking," she says.

***

Enrollment increases aren't exclusive to community colleges, however.

Spring enrollment at Shenandoah University in Winchester reached 3,600, surpassing the private university's goal of 3,500 students a full two years ahead of schedule.

SU Dean of Admissions David Anthony says school officials intended to keep enrollment flat at the start of the 2008-09 academic year in a nod to the economy, but normal student recruitment and retention efforts produced 150 new students, many of them in SU's graduate programs.

"There's the old rule of thumb that when the economy is bad, graduate enrollment goes up, and that has been the case with us," Anthony says, from business and teacher education to health professions and the arts. "We're up across the board."

Kara Edmonson, 22, a recent graduate of the Harry F. Byrd Jr. School of Business, says the gloomy economy was a factor in her decision to stay at SU and get her MBA.

"It was definitely in the back of my mind," says Edmonson, a Winchester native who is working toward licensure as a certified public accountant.

At a state CPA conference last month at the University of Virginia, Edmonson says she was encouraged by the job prospects at industry heavyweights KPMG, Deloitte & Touche and Ernst & Young.

"They didn't seem like they weren't hiring," she says, adding, "The accounting profession, I think, has held up a little better" than other business fields.

Edmonson plans to complete her master's at SU next summer. She also is eyeing law school, a decision shaped by her part-time work with Winchester attorney H. Edmunds "Eds" Coleman III.

Of course, that three-year commitment would also depend on the economy, she says.

***

The recession's grip on higher education is expected to carry over into the 2009-10 school year.

Anthony says tuition deposits for new students enrolling at SU in the fall are up 12 percent over July 2008. He expects an incoming class of between 675 and 700 undergraduates and around 550 graduate students.

Those numbers come despite a 3.5 percent tuition hike for full-time undergraduates to $23,850.

"I think parents and students are seeing the value in a private education," Anthony says. "There has been a lot of press about public schools having to cut back on staff [due to funding cuts] and cap enrollments. ... I think that message really resonated with families this year."

The price tag at LFCC has gone up as well, but at a modest $82 per credit hour, school officials don't expect the jump in student enrollment to slow any time soon.

"Between the economic factors and the guaranteed admissions, a lot of people, they're going to start with you," Thompson-Stacy says.

Currently, about a third of SU undergraduates are transfers, mostly from the Northern Virginia Community College system and LFCC, according to Anthony.

But the demands of serving a larger student population at a time when public funds for education are scarce have put a strain on area colleges.

LFCC has seen a 10 percent reduction in state funding over the past two years and is expecting another cut this year.

"It's not easy," Thompson-Stacy says of having to do more with less. "People work harder, and we add adjunct faculty to add sections of classes so that we can serve more students. But it's tough, and unfortunately, I don't see that changing any time soon."

As a private university, Shenandoah does not receive state funding, but the revenue shortfall in Richmond means less money for the Virginia Tuition Assistance Grant program. About 1,000 SU students currently receive the need-based grants, which are reserved for full-time students at private institutions who have established residence in the commonwealth.

Both Lord Fairfax and Shenandoah report an increase in the government's Free Application for Federal Student Aid program due to the economy.

Nearly 75 percent of new students entering SU this fall have applied for federal student aid, according to the school's director of financial aid, Nancy Bragg.

However, FAFSA is rather black-and-white -- eligibility is based on income from the previous year's tax return. Financial aid offices are increasingly hearing from applicants whose status has changed in the interim due to the loss of a job or costly medical bills.

"At LFCC, we pride ourselves on the ability to be gray," says Bucher. "We take a look at a student's current situation and make some adjustments and make them eligible for some aid that they wouldn't normally have qualified for."

During the 2007-08 academic year, LFCC awarded more than $2.7 million in grants, work-study and scholarships to more than 1,200 students.

SU gives out academic scholarships ranging from $2,000 to $10,000 a year, plus a presidential scholarship for its best incoming students that pays $16,000 annually. The private university also relies on its endowment as well as gifts from foundations, corporations and individual patrons, though the value of many of those funds has been reduced due to the economy, Bragg says.

Before the start of the spring semester, the university set up emergency loans to help students and their parents struggling with tuition as well as a grant program to help with student expenses like books and food.

"We were able to distribute those funds so that many of those students could come back and complete the year," Bragg says.

"Things are a little unstable right now, but we're trying to be aware and responsive to students who have financial concerns and meet their needs."

* Next: Resilience in the face of recession.




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