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BTC breaking enrollment records

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FRANK J. SCHULTZ
August 28, 2009
— About 120 students had to park on the grass at Blackhawk Technical College's main campus Monday.

BTC staff members are dealing with their second year of surging enrollments, brought on by jobless workers looking to retrain in an area of the state hit hardest by business closings.


Officials had more time to plan for this year's surge, but that doesn't mean it's been easy, said Sharon Kennedy, BTC vice president for learning.


Monday was the first day of classes for the fall term, and the parking lot was full even though 98 spaces were added last year.


The lot now has 1,222 parking spaces, but it has reached capacity three times this week, mostly between 9 and 10 a.m., said Brian Gohlke, vice president of human resources.


Full-time-equivalent fall enrollment is up 26 percent over last year, and that's on top of a nearly 23 percent increase last year at this time.


A separate set of data shows BTC reached an all-time high in full-time-equivalent enrollment of 2,359 for the entire 2008-09 school year.


BTC projects this year will set another record, with more than 3,200 full-time-equivalent students.


Recently, most BTC students have been part-time.


"What we're seeing now is a big shift to full time, largely because of the transitioning work populations and stipulations by their benefit programs, either state or federal, that say they must attend full time," said Len Walker, director of institutional advancement.


BTC hired 14 teachers over the past two years to help with the influx, Kennedy said. It also has moved its Beloit center to a facility nearly four times as large as the old one.


"I don't know what we would have done without it," Kennedy said of the Beloit center.


Officials have outfitted more rooms at the main campus with computers to handle the increasing demand. Nearly every teacher on campus uses computers in the classroom, Kennedy said.


But not all students have even basic computer skills. Kennedy said the challenge of getting so many students up to speed in a modern college setting is enormous.


"I think the challenge has been computer literacy along with people who haven't been to school in 20 to 25 years," she said.


Most have the ability to be college students, but it takes a semester or more for them to get up to speed, she added.


A one-credit course in college study skills has been "tremendously successful," Kennedy said, and noncredit computer literacy courses also are available.


"I know people are frustrated, but it's also frustrating for the college to attempt to figure out how to do that overnight," Kennedy said. "It's been amazing to see this, to watch this happen, and I think we are doing a good job."


BTC has been offering more evening classes in an effort to get more use out of its classrooms. That has worked in some cases, such as the male-dominated manufacturing courses, Kennedy said.


But people prefer daytime classes in other areas, especially in health care, where more women are enrolled. Kennedy suspects that a major reason is that women want to be at home when their children come home from school.


Kennedy is trying to hold classes to maximums of 32 students, to preserve quality.


"I've told the faculty we certainly want to accommodate as many students as we can, but I don't want to create instructional environments that are not sound," she said.


If she could wave a magic wand, Kennedy said, she'd ask for more classrooms and more money to hire teachers to fill them.


Kennedy said projections are for enrollment to taper off by December 2010, but that could change.


"I don't know. I'm hoping there are no more (business) closings. But if there are no more closings, I think we're going be able get people through within the next year and a half and then go back to what would be normal enrollment increases of 3 to 5 percent," she said.


For those who missed the chance to enroll for the fall semester, Kennedy said courses run in eight-week segments, so the next chance to start learning at BTC is in October.


Meanwhile, BTC has no immediate plans to expand its parking lot, Gohlke said, but "we are certainly monitoring the situation."



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