SEATTLE — Luther Sonny White III says being laid off has transformed into “an awesome opportunity.”
Back in class 40 years after graduating from high school, he is studying for an associate’s degree at Seattle Central Community College so he can switch careers and become a drug and alcohol counselor.
White, 58, is one of the thousands of new college students in Washington, where fall enrollment is setting a record for a second year at the state’s 34 community and technical colleges.
Autumn enrollment is expected to top 146,000 full-time equivalent students at Washington’s public two-year colleges, a nearly 10 percent increase over fall 2008. Historically, college enrollment increases during an economic downturn and decreases as jobs become more plentiful.
“We all hoped for a quicker economic recovery, but it’s clear now the effects of the recession are lingering,” said Charlie Earl, executive director of the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.
Enrollment in worker retraining programs is up dramatically, but other categories — including college transfer and adult literacy — are also seeing more students.
White, who joined the Navy after graduating from Hill House High School in New Haven, Conn., started college in September, soon after being laid off from his job at a social service organization.
The Renton, Wash., resident says he won’t be distracted by the lure of a new job when the economy improves.
“I’m loving it. I’m like a kid in the candy store,” he said. “I’m going 110 percent — two feet in. I’m not stopping.”
Jill Wakefield, chancellor of the four-campus Seattle Community College District, said the colleges are filled with enthusiastic older students. Enrollment is up nearly 12 percent since last year, or the equivalent of 700 full-time students this summer and fall.
“Our classes are very full. We have waiting lists. We’re trying to accommodate as many students as we can. I’m not sure how long we can continue to do it,” Wakefield said, adding that 32 percent more students say they are unemployed compared with last year’s student population.
Greg Bachar, a part-time English instructor at Seattle Central for the past 11 years, said he’s never seen more nontraditional students in his classes and on campus. Bacher said there simply aren’t enough classes for everyone who wants to enroll.
“You’d think it would be like a restaurant. When there’s more customers, the restaurant booms, but this is a different system,” Bachar said.
Earl said the community college system has been flexible during this time of increased demand, with a total of 20 percent more full-time equivalent students over a two-year period while the Legislature was cutting the community college budget.
“At some point we’re going to run out of options,” Earl said.
Despite the overcrowding, Wakefield didn’t want to discourage anyone from signing up for school. She advised students to enroll early and be flexible about class times.
“If you get in early, there should be a place for you,” she said.
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