RUSKIN — No other school could beat the price, not to mention the brand new digs.
Snapping his cell phone shut, Gino Gonzalez took a look around Hillsborough Community College's new South Shore campus one recent afternoon between classes. From the 20-year-old's home in Riverview, it takes 15 minutes to get to class in Ruskin.
"I spent two years in school in Philadelphia, and it just got too expensive to live there," Gonzalez said. "So I came back home and decided to go here. I'm glad I did. The instructors are great and the new building is really nice."
Gonzalez was one of nearly 300 students to enroll full time at the campus when it opened this fall. The dramatic increase stunned administrators, who were expecting 50 tops.
"I had said that if we garnered 150, that would be beyond my wildest dreams," said George Keith, president of HCC South Shore. "We were not expecting anything like that."
The influx sent the school scrambling to find teachers for the 1,500 students. The campus offers 150 classes in 10 classrooms and seven labs. Students can work toward an associate's degree in arts, an emergency medical technician's certificate, four-year degrees and even a master's degree through partner universities.
Keith said the school believes a "pent up demand" for higher education in southeastern Hillsborough was one main factor in the high enrollment. Another reason: the sluggish economy.
Smaller budgets have caused colleges and universities to tighten admissions, which in turn pushed some students into community colleges, Keith explained. Statistics also show that when the economy isn't doing well, schools like HCC typically see more students sign up for courses.
"When the economy is good, enrollment softens," Keith said. "When times are tough and people are unemployed or looking to strengthen their credentials, we see our numbers go up."
Located on 24th Street across from Lennard High School, the new $16.5-million, eco-friendly building sits on 60 acres that will eventually be home to another four to six buildings. Built with all recyclable or biodegradable materials, the building also boasts interior lighting that adjusts to daylight streaming in from one of the many windows and a reclaimed water system that collects rainwater and uses it to flush toilets.
The school hopes to cut energy costs by 25 percent a year, and looks forward to receiving certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.
And though it's the smallest of HCC's five campuses — the largest being the Dale Mabry site with 4,000 full time students — the future points to growth for South Shore. The school is sandwiched between thousands of acres of anticipated housing developments, office and industrial space, and shopping and entertainment.
Looking out his office window at empty fields, Keith noted that the current economy has stalled development. But he said that the new building could become an important location to HCC as a whole. Anywhere from 7,000 to 15,000 students could attend the school in the next decade.
Projections for next semester already show that the new school is on track for getting bigger. With 110 full-time students already enrolled for the spring semester, Keith estimates that about 350 students will have signed up for classes by the time classes start in January.
"We're anticipating a big crowd," he said, "for us."
Chandra Broadwater can be reached at email@example.com, or 661-2454.