During the last economic slump, in the early 1990s, Angela Genna did what a lot of people do when times get rough: She went back to college, part time. The single mother of three was a medical transcriber, and she knew that getting an associate's degree would mean a better-paying job.
This past January, she graduated from Queensborough Community College. She is now working as a registered nurse at double the salary she was making before, and she plans to keep studying for a bachelor's degree. "The more you know, the better you are," Ms. Genna says.
The pitch from community colleges has special appeal now that economic turmoil has hit again: Educate yourself, make more money. But just as enrollment is rising, cities and states are cutting schools' budgets, forcing them to do more with less and to get creative about fundraising.
"We're seeing double-digit increases in enrollments across the country," says George Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges in Washington. "Our fear is that just when people need us the most we'll be making it harder for them to go to college."
Community colleges, which don't have entrance requirements, aim to give opportunities to everyone. They are often the first step up the economic ladder for immigrants, dropouts, and those who are the first in their family to attend college.
"For many people, we're the first chance and the bridge. For others, we're the second chance," says Carolyn Williams, president of Bronx Community College, part of the City University of New York (CUNY).
At LaGuardia Community College in Queens, another CUNY school, two-thirds of the 12,000 students were not born in the US. "The crunch for access is particularly acute here because immigrants see education as their one and only way into the middle class and the American Dream," says Gail Mellow, president of LaGuardia.
Lindy Lawrence, a student from the Caribbean, didn't get into the four-year college she applied to, so she entered Borough of Manhattan Community College instead. "They let you know, 'We want you here and need you here,' and they work to get the best out of you," Ms. Lawrence says. "It gives you the confidence you need to move on." Having earned her associate's degree, Lawrence is moving on to St. John's University with a full scholarship that is reserved for community college students.
Bronx Community College is representative of the big jumps in earning potential that attract students. Most students there are heads of household with an average income of about $15,000. "Six months after graduation, that goes up to $25,000," according to alumni surveys, Ms. Williams says.
But the surge in enrollments is posing challenges. This spring, enrollment at CUNY's Kingsborough Community College was 10 percent higher than any semester in more than 35 years. At the same time, compared with last fall, the school has about $3.5 million less in funds about 6 percent of its budget and anticipates further cuts.
"CUNY is approaching a time when we expect big squeezes at the city and state level," says Matthew Goldstein, CUNY's chancellor.
To compensate, schools facing the same circumstances around the country are cutting back on services, offering fewer classes, replacing full-time faculty with part-time, and encouraging students to take online courses.
"They can be very painful decisions to make," says Ms. Mellow, who herself graduated from a community college and later taught at several. "Do you offer a calculus class, or keep the childcare center open on Friday afternoons?" Some courses that enrich the curriculum but are not necessities have been shut down.
Bronx Community College has been reducing routine maintenance: Bathrooms don't get cleaned as often, the lawn grows a little longer before it is cut. "Many positions are being left vacant," Williams says. Lounges and offices are being converted to classrooms. The school now charges a technology fee, and it might have to reduce library hours.
In the midst of these pressures, more students are on the doorstep and with less ability to pay. Some have been laid off or have lost a crucial second job. "We call them and they say, 'I'm sorry, I just don't have the money,'" Mellow says. "These are students who just can't manage a couple hundred dollars every couple of weeks."
Those who can find money for tuition often come up short when it comes to buying books.
Mellow and her colleagues are searching for ways to finance scholarships, equipment, software, and faculty that are not supported by reduced budgets.
"We simply must find ways to raise money outside of the traditional sources," says Byron McClenney, president of Kingsborough Community College. "Community colleges are late to the field of external fundraising, but we're going to have to be engaged in that in a way that we haven't needed to do historically."
For three years, CUNY college presidents have had their salaries and those of their administrators tied to their performance meeting fundraising targets. "Community colleges can do things differently than research universities by positioning themselves entrepreneurially," Mr. Goldstein says.
By that he means partnering with local businesses to develop a product or provide a service, offering customized training programs for companies, and renting out equipment and facilities such as labs and theaters.
Colleges such as LaGuardia are establishing nonprofit companies that can earn income from consulting. And, whereas universities turn to alumni for their major fundraising, community colleges are increasingly asking individuals and businesses for financial support.