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2-year colleges struggle with demand

Students on the campus of Santa Monica College in Santa Monica, Calif.

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KAI RYSSDAL: During a speech in Michigan today President Obama played a little bit of economic hardball. He said some of the jobs that Detroit and other cities have lost in this recession aren't going to be coming back.

Part of how he wants us to deal with that is education. Community college education, to be specific. The White House wants to dramatically increase the number of students completing degrees at two-year schools when a lot of those schools are already struggling to keep up with demand.

Tamara Keith has more.


TAMARA KEITH: Say you've been laid off, and you keep hearing that health care jobs are where it's at. A nursing degree from the local community college could be the answer -- if you can wait.

Mike Hansen: Every college in Michigan offers nursing and every one has a waiting list.

Mike Hansen is president of the Michigan Community College Association.

Hansen: Just because you want to become a nurse doesn't mean that you can, you know, walk right in and sign up to be a nurse.

Community college enrollment always spikes during tough economic times. People come looking to retrain and find a new career. And an increasing number of high school grads are turning to community colleges to save on university tuition. There's just one problem. Hansen says college budgets aren't growing. Actually, they're shrinking.

Hansen: You're trying to serve more students in a time of need in a time of declining revenue to support those students.

In Washington State, funding cuts are so severe the community college board declared a financial state of emergency for the first time since 1982. In California, more than 200,000 students may not be able to attend classes due to budget cuts combined with booming enrollment.

Scott Lay with the Community College League of California says it's down to survival of the fittest.

Scott Lay: Those students who have the ability to wait on a waiting list, to stand in line to see a counselor, are the ones who are surviving and getting into classes. Unfortunately for the economically neediest students, they just have a real hard time competing to get the classes they need.

College leaders say they appreciate the president's attention, and they'll take any extra money they can get.

In Washington, I'm Tamara Keith for Marketplace.

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