After being laid off from two jobs in Indiana, Oscar Amons returned to St. Petersburg to take care of his ailing mother and find a job. His mother passed away within a few months, and finding a job proved tougher than expected. "I couldn't find any employment," he said. "My age, 54, has a lot to do with it." So Amons enrolled at St. Petersburg College hoping to boost his associate's degree with a bachelor's in computer networks, a high-demand area. Spurred by the tough job market, students like Amons have helped grow SPC's enrollment over the past five years — a 31 percent increase between 2005 and 2010. Minority enrollment also has shot up. "People are tooling up for where jobs exists," added Yvonne Ulmer, SPC's downtown campus executive officer. "We're seeing a lot of transition."
With the expanding student body, SPC is now grappling with staffing shortages, aging and inadequate facilities, and making sure students graduate on time.
SPC is working on solutions, said president Bill Law: hiring more teachers, developing individual learning plans for all students and fashioning a campus facilities master plan.
And with a new governor in office focused on tightening the state budget, college administrators also are working on being in "synch with political leadership," Law said.
"We're trying to stay ahead of the curve a little," he said.
Getting more teachers
Even as more students have arrived at SPC, there have been fewer people to teach them.
Rates for both full-time and part-time faculty fell 9 percent in the past five years, straining certain parts of the SPC system: The downtown and midtown campuses have 3,000 students served by only two full-time faculty members and 14 other staffers.
Stacey Hughes, who was made a full-time faculty member last fall, drove between the downtown, midtown and Gibbs campuses for six years as an adjunct. She said the college has been proactive in hiring adjuncts and full-time instructors. "The class sizes are a little larger but nothing we can't handle," Hughes said.
The average class size at SPC is 30. Some lecture-style classes such as psychology or American government have 40.
Recently, SPC's board of trustees allocated $400,000 for the hiring of 22 full-time faculty members, and nine of those are supposed to replace retired or transferred instructors. College officials plan to hire 17 more in 2012-13.
It all means another tuition hike is likely, Law said. The college's tuition rate has gone up 53 percent since 2005. Now associate's degree students pay $94 per credit hour at SPC, and baccalaureate students pay $101, slightly higher than last year.
College tuition has gone up nationwide. The average community college tuition was $2,544 a year in 2009, up by $172 from the previous year, according to U.S. News & World Report.
"Something has to pay for the growth," Law said.
Getting the classrooms
What's not going up is funding for public school construction.
This year, 28 community colleges statewide have to share $88 million in state funding. SPC's portion is $2.4 million, down from $5 million last year.
But the burgeoning student body will still have to be housed, and existing projects must go on, such as the former big-box store being converted into classrooms in Tarpon Springs.
One of SPC's biggest needs is in St. Petersburg. Twelve years ago, its downtown campus had 200 students and three full-time staffers. Today, it has 2,500 students, two full-time faculty members and 12 employees working in a converted parking garage. A library, student center and a wellness center are being added on to the first floor.
At the college's midtown campus, 500 students attend classes in a cramped building with an expiring lease. The owner wants to sell the property. SPC is looking for a new place to build a better facility but finds itself short on money.
A new facility with classrooms, a lab and a student support center would run up to $15 million, Law said.
"There has to be a new strategy for finding ways to build colleges," he said. "But nobody has good ideas."
Getting back to work
Nearly 10 years ago, St. Petersburg College was the first community college in the state to offer baccalaureate degrees, under former longtime president Carl Kuttler's leadership.
Now, SPC offers 18 degree options, from nursing to paralegal studies. Student enrollment in those programs increased by 171 percent between 2005 and 2010, officials said.
In the same five years, students who signed up for workforce certificate programs increased by 38 percent.
SPC has made "workforce development" — training students for existing or potential jobs — a priority, said Law. For example, the college hopes to add certificate programs for entry-level manufacturing jobs. Law, who is on the board of Workforce Florida, thinks the industry could add 200 to 300 jobs in the area soon.
"There are 53,000 people out of work in Pinellas,'' he said. "We've got to figure out how to get them back to work."
Getting to the finish line
Although enrollment numbers are high, that does not mean students graduate on time.
The school is not alone. A recent Harvard report said less than 30 percent of the students enrolled in community colleges nationwide complete their associate's degree on time, or even graduate.
Pinning down a graduation rate for community colleges is complicated because of the type of students who are enrolled and the programs offered. The graduation rate for full-time, first-time college students in 2008-09 at SPC is 30 percent, according to the Florida Department of Education.
Another rate that SPC officials use to track their students is the "success rate," which includes students who graduated, are in good standing or transferred to a four-year school.
So SPC is revamping student orientation and expanding tutoring. And in the fall, the college will track 1,500 incoming students to help them stay on course, and advisers catch struggling students before they fall through the cracks, Law said.
"It's targeted guidance as opposed to general guidance," he said. "We can check to see how we can help students bring their energy to the discussion."
No one would like to graduate from SPC more than Patrick Williams.
The Boca Ciega High graduate said he has tried trade school in Atlanta and audio school in New Jersey but dropped out of both.
He returned to St. Petersburg to be closer to his family and his 2-year-old daughter. For a while, Williams tried to work the graveyard shift at Walmart and go to school simultaneously, but it became too stressful. He finally quit his job and got financial aid to go to school full time.
"It's either work or go to school. I've tried doing both, and it's hard," said the 22-year-old.
Being back in school also has been a big transition for Amons, who has held jobs with the U.S. Postal Service and a construction company.
"At first it was kind of hard. I have been a supervisor for 17 years, and I have trained and evaluated employees," he said. "But I'd like to finish what I started. … And the people here have been so much help."