Michaele Ihasz is training at Ozarks Technical Community College to become a respiratory therapist. She's one of more than 13,000 students at OTC this semester.
Michaele Ihasz is training at Ozarks Technical Community College to become a respiratory therapist. She's one of more than 13,000 students at OTC this semester.
While many sectors are hard hit by the ongoing recession, Missouri's community colleges are faring well, with enrollment up across the board.

The Missouri Community College Association announced Aug. 27 that opening day enrollment was up an average of 12.8 percent for the 12 community colleges, with Neosho-based Crowder College leading the way.

Enrollment at Crowder College is up 33.5 percent.

"The majority of students that constitute our increase are probably traditional students, but yet with the need for training and the effects of the economy, there are several that are coming to us for our technical programs (or) getting a certificate or associate of applied science degrees to get into the work force," said Jim Riggs, Crowder's director of admissions.

"More and more of those people that are coming back because of the economy are saying, 'Well, I got laid off, but now I can't find anything because I know how to do this or that, but I'm not certified to do it.'"

Caught by surprise

Unexpected job changes also are driving enrollment at Springfield-based Ozarks Technical Community College, which posted opening day enrollment of 13,194, up 15.6 percent.

Among current enrollees is OTC student Michaela Ihasz, a former stay-at-home mom who found herself back in the classroom after her husband lost his job with an Ohio bank as the result of an acquisition.

James Ihasz remained unemployed for eight months, until a job in portfolio management with U.S. Bank brought him to Springfield in late 2007.

The life change forced the couple to take a hard look at their situation, and Michaela Ihasz decided she needed to return to college in order to have future job security.

By January, she was in an OTC classroom working toward certification as a respiratory therapist, one of thousands who are turning to education to get better footing in a soft job market.

As the state's unemployment numbers have climbed to 9.6 percent, OTC has seen a record number of students, and administrators were expecting growth to 12,000 students. But the jump beyond that number caught school officials by surprise, said OTC President Hal Higdon.

Still, the 15.6 percent opening day enrollment increase only tells part of OTC's story. Another 10,000 to 12,000 people are seeking training through the school's work force development or continuing education departments.

"So you're talking total training of ... over 25,000 different individuals," Higdon said.

Meeting demand

To meet the increased demand, OTC has added evening and Saturday classes, late-start classes, and has developed additional work force development programs. "Enrollment is so high on the credit side, finding classrooms is one of the biggest challenges," said Dana Thorp Patterson, director of continuing education.

To accommodate the growing student population, OTC has finished a new building at its Richwood Valley campus in Christian County, added 5,000 square feet to the Branson Education Center and completed an addition to a classroom building at the main campus.

But this falls short of fully accommodating such an increase in demand for education - which Higdon expects to remain high during the next six to 12 months.

"One thing the economists always tell us is that unemployment always lags behind recovery," Higdon said. "... The recovery that you will see in the stock market will probably be several months ahead of the recovery in employment."

Expanding physical space, introducing new programs and scheduling additional classes to accommodate anticipated growth carries a hefty price tag.

Higdon said OTC's funding comes primarily from tuition, which is currently $81 dollars a credit hour in-district and $99 per credit for out-of-district enrollees, said OTC spokesman Joel Doepker. Of OTC's 2009-10 $56 million operating budget, half comes from tuition and fees, 20 percent comes from state funding, with the remainder coming from property tax levies, state and federal grants, and other sources.

The issue is further complicated by the state's funding formula for higher education, which is not responsive to enrollment changes.

"Every school that has grown in the last 10 to 15 years is being punished while schools that have shrunk or not grown are being rewarded," Higdon said.

Higdon is lobbying state lawmakers to change the formula, but unless or until that happens, he is left to stretch the school's funds as far as he can.

"You get creative, you behave in an entrepreneurial fashion, you market, you make sure that you spend your money wisely and you just keep making sacrifices and keep making changes until you have everybody in who wants to be in," he said.

Riggs said Crowder also is working to manage growth.

"We've had to pick up several new teachers to handle the increased load of classes," he said. "We offer many more sections than we did before of the general education classes."

He noted that the No. 1 major at Crowder is general studies, followed by nursing.

Rob Smith, of Lockwood, is using funds from the Workforce Investment Act to pay for school at Crowder after losing his job at Renewable Environmental Solutions when the owner filed for bankruptcy in March and the company closed.

Smith is working toward his associate's degree of applied science in energy and wind.

"WIA won't pay for a four-year degree, but they'll fund you for two years. This was the only alternative energy program where you could get more than a certificate. You can actually get a degree," Smith said.

New skills, new options

Many of the learners walking through OTC's doors are either trying to improve a skill set or, in the case of the unemployed, looking for training that will help them get a job in industries that remain robust.

The school is "working with displaced workers a lot," said Patterson, pointing to job skills training, professional development, and certification and vocational programs that can help someone get a new skill set.

Providing that variety of options is essential - not only for the workers, but also for the region's overall economy, Higdon said.

As an example, he points to a training program in Lebanon organized in conjunction with Detroit Tool that will train 250 Lebanon-area workers in robotic welding. Had it not been for OTC's training program, the company would not be relocating its plant to Lebanon from Iowa, Higdon said.

When training is complete, those workers will be eligible for a job that starts at $16 an hour.

"If you're making $8 an hour and go to $16 an hour, that'll change a family's life," Higdon said.

OTC also has seen an increase in the number of people looking to improve skills.Patterson said continuing education enrollment numbers are about the same as last year, but she has noticed an uptick in people taking computer or Web site development classes.

As demand for a particular course goes up, the department adjusts to meet the need, Patterson said.

"It's constantly changing, the programs we offer," Patterson said. "We have to look for cutting-edge ideas, what's going on in other parts of the country, what kinds of things are critical for our area right now, and of course the economy is probably the foremost issue."

Looking back, Ihasz said the turbulence she and her family weathered in 2007 was worth it.

"In a way, losing his job was a blessing because I'm getting the education that I needed, and he's got his dream job," she said.

Joplin Tri-State Business Journal Reporter Doug Graham contributed to this story.