It’s been well known that enrollment figures at county colleges and universities this semester are at all-time highs, prompted by students entering the academic fold as never before. Classrooms have filled up to maximum capacity, boding well for education when other industries in this current economy are suffering badly.

The most unlikely programs are thriving, as well. According to Trudy Milburn, a communications professor at Cal State University Channel Islands in Camarillo, the school’s business program continues to be the school’s most popular concentration.

The number of communications majors, she added, has also doubled in the past year, remarkable considering the decline of journalism and other media-related fields as profitable careers.

The popularity of certain majors, in tandem with the recent spike in enrollments, speaks to the savviness of students looking to earn their degrees in industries with stable futures.

According to Ramiro Sanchez, vice president of instruction at Ventura College, as of last semester the top-five-ranked popular majors were nursing science; business administration and general management; liberal arts, tied with science and teaching; psychology; and lastly, criminal justice. The information is based, he said, upon responses from students on their applications.

Conversely, lower tier, less popular majors include subjects like construction technology, architecture, automotive technology and computer information systems, Sanchez noted.

The boost in enrollment for local students extends beyond the borders of Ventura County, too. According to data provided by the University of California in Santa Barbara (UCSB), as of last semester, almost 1,100 students attending were from Ventura.

However, that number is lower than it could be.

“I hear concerns the other way, that people can’t go back to school because they can’t afford it, they have to go to work,” says Patrick McNulty, associate registrar at UCSB.

Some who enter school may contribute to high enrollment figures, but take fewer units with the intent of improving only certain skill sets.

“What we’re finding is, the number of credits students are taking is down slightly from last year,” says Matt Ward, the dean of undergraduate enrollment at Cal Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks.

“We think it’s the short-term effects of the economy,” he explained. “Students are evaluating where they can apply their resources.”

The trend is especially evident, Ward said, at the graduate level, where CLU enrolls around 1,200 students.

“Typically, when students move from a community college to a four-year institution, they go full time,” he said. “But at the graduate and adult level, when they’re chipping away at a degree, they’re often carrying a job and balancing both things.”

The balancing act is a paradox colleges are facing as well. Because of the student overflow this semester, three campuses in the county’s community college district have found themselves financially strapped because they’ve overextended the enrollment cap paid for through state funds.

At those three schools — Ventura College, Oxnard College and Moorpark College — enrollment for the spring 2009 semester far surpasses what the schools had in terms of student bodies just last fall. According to Susan Bricker, Ventura College’s registrar, as of last week, 14,317 students were enrolled at Ventura, a 16.8-percent increase from last year; at Oxnard, 7,493 students, up 13.5 percent; and at the Moorpark campus, a 9.5-percent increase to 15,051 students.

“More people are coming back to school,” Bricker said. “We’re seeing a wide variety of students (both) for the first time and returning to school. All age ranges.”

Bricker said that for returning students, this scenario is cyclical.

“It happens in a bad economy,” she said. “They come back to school to make themselves more employable and marketable. We’re seeing a lot of middle-aged and older working adults, especially, to update their job skills.”

According to Sue Johnson, Ventura College’s finance manager, a soured economy does two things for the district.

“When the economy is bad, enrollment climbs,” she says. “[Also] When the economy is bad, the state unfortunately cuts our funding.”

Normally, Johnson said, the district receives about $4,500 per student in state money. But it only allows for a 2 percent increase in enrollment, she said; and with enrollment rates this spring reaching up to eight times more than the state cap, Johnson estimates that there are nearly 6,000 students who aren’t being funded. According to her, that amounts to about $10.9 million the college should be receiving this spring, but isn’t.

“The state caps our growth they fund,” she explained. “When they say, ‘Here’s your dollars for this year,’ they’re taking last year’s base funding and increasing it for growth.”

Essentially, “We’re educating more students without the additional funding from the state,” Johnson said.

The district has tried to take steps to rectify the problem.

“We’ve actually reduced our offerings in the spring,” Johnson said. “What they’re doing is looking at classes in less demand, the low enrollment classes, or classes that have multiple offerings.”

It’s a small consolidation of savings on the funding cap, even though enrollment figures far exceed the state’s 2 percent limit.

“It’s one of the ways we can afford to educate more students,” she said. “We’re being more efficient from that standpoint.”

The same could be said for the 3,500-student CSUCI.

“We’re actually scaling back in the master plan how many majors come online, due to restricted state funding,” says Milburn. 

The school has also stopped transfer enrollment for the Spring 2010 semester. It’s also awaiting approval from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) so CSUCI can continue offering an English graduate degree, a non-budget-related issue.

Johnson, of Ventura College, hopes that students won’t be deterred from pursuing college because of high enrollment figures, full classrooms or financial strains on local education.

“The way students are turned away, if you will, is if they can’t find the classes they need,” she said. “It’s not that we say, ‘You can’t come here.’ It’s the constraints on offerings to what they need.”   

paul@vcreporter.com