INSIDE the registration room at Suffolk County Community College's main campus earlier this month, an aspiring nursing student stared into a computer screen, trying to put together a schedule for the fall.
A counselor leaned in and shook her head.
"There's no chemistries," she said, suggesting the teenager check back next month, when space might open up. "None. No chemistries at all."
Fueled by the recession, community colleges are bracing for an enrollment surge unlike any seen in at least two decades. The demand, coupled with tighter budgets, is forcing schools to stretch schedules, increase class sizes and consider the possibility of turning away students from a system built on the principle of open admission to higher education.
Applications to Suffolk and Nassau Community College, the two largest in the state, are up as much as 33 percent over this time last year. Officials project those numbers will level off and result in an enrollment increase of 10 to 15 percent.
"We're in unchartered waters," said George Gatta, interim president of Suffolk County Community College, which had a Fall 2008 enrollment of just over 23,000. "Can we handle 10 or 15 percent more? I think we can. Beyond that, it would be a real challenge. Some students might essentially get deferred to another semester. It could happen."
While economic downturns historically boost community college enrollment, this recession is unique, officials say, because the combination of job losses, tight credit markets and home foreclosures has created a crush of students that cuts across all demographic groups.
They range from the 38-year-old mother of three from Patchogue looking to finish a paralegal degree because her family could use a second income to the 18-year-old nursing student from Holtsville whose parents convinced her to put aside her dream of going away to college to save money.
"My mom talked me into going to Suffolk, so here I am," said Michelle Chykirda. "I just want to get my RN and I can do that here just as well."
The price differential is stark. Average annual tuition at a private, four-year school is $25,143 and $6,585 at a four-year public university, according to the College Board. By comparison, tuition at Suffolk and Nassau costs less than $4,000 a year for resident students.
The enrollment surge comes as President Barack Obama pushes a plan to pump $12 billion into community colleges over the next decade, saying they will play a leading role in the economic recovery. But the proposed funding is years away while the crush of students is hard upon them.
No immediate relief on the way
"So far we have had a very promising announcement," said Norma Kent, vice president of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges. "But for immediate relief, I just don't see that happening."
Suffolk is expanding its schedule, which already runs seven days a week, with more dawn, late night and weekend classes. It is increasing some lecture classes from 33 to 55 students, and has moved up its fall registration deadline two weeks to Aug. 10 - a change it is highlighting in a new ad campaign that features a man with a clock face and the headline "Time is Running Out."
Across New York State and nationally, the story is the same.
In Massachusetts, Bunker Hill Community College is offering classes that run from 11:45 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. to accommodate shift workers seeking retraining. Miami-Dade Community College in Florida, the nation's largest with about 164,000 students spread over eight campuses, expects to turn away 5,000 students this fall.
Some upstate community colleges also are considering overnight class schedules, along with 24-hour computer labs and leasing portable classrooms, said SUNY Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher, who began the job June 1.
"They are preparing to meet the demand, but that cannot go on without stress to the system," she said. On a trip to Monroe Community College in Rochester last week, the school's application increase jumped 3 percentage points during her two-hour tour of the campus.
"They talk about stress tests for banks," she said, "they better do a stress test for universities."
Surges are unpredictable
The quandary for college officials is planning for a surge that is as unpredictable as the economy. As a result, they say there is no way to be sure how much of the increase in applications is being driven by students registering early. The AACC's best estimate for the fall enrollment increase nationwide, for example, is 4 to 26 percent.
"Typically, community college students register very late," Kent said, "so there may be some surprises coming."
Caught in the middle are school officials, who try to stress urgency without scaring students away. "My secretary was at the beauty parlor and people were talking about how we're closed out until 2010 and I was, like, 'That's crazy! I have a bazillion seats,' " said Carol Farber, associate vice president for academic affairs and institutional operations at Nassau Community College. "We have plenty of space available in the evening and on weekends. You may not get prime time, but you'll get something."
George Godberson knows all about that. The 18-year-old from St. James, a graduate of St. Anthony's High School, felt lucky to score a freshman-level accounting class at Suffolk County Community College, even if it does start at 7:30 a.m.
"All of the classes I need are available," he said, "but some are at obscure times." He shrugged. "It's a small price to pay. The way the economy is - it's better to do something like this."