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Economy, returning vets boost community college enrollment around state

After losing his job as a dishwasher and after 21 years of work, Harold Luke decided to go back to school.

On a recent weekday, he was getting ready for his second semester at Mesa Community College, where he’s studying welding.

“(I’m) just trying to get on track and into a career,” Luke said.

With the economy staggering, community colleges around Arizona are seeing more students studying for new careers and better jobs.

Preliminary numbers at Cochise College in southeastern Arizona, for example, show a 16 percent overall increase. That includes a 13 percent increase in students between 25 and 49 years old, said Denise Merkel, the school’s public information officer.

“When jobs aren’t available, it’s common for people to come back to school to prepare for the future,” Merkel said.

At Eastern Arizona College in Thatcher, where enrollment is up 12 percent so far, the number of students between 26 and 54 years old is 30 percent higher than the same time last year, according to Todd Haynie, the school’s director of marketing and public relations.

Enrollment is up 10 percent so far at Maricopa Community Colleges, and media relations manager Charles Reinebold said the economy is the main reason.

“History tells us that whenever the economy is in the tank our enrollment goes up,” he said.

While a breakdown for this school year isn’t available, enrollment of students between the ages of 30 and 49 was up 12 percent last year, Reinebold said.

Enrollment numbers may change as the colleges are still in the window when students can register late or withdraw from classes.

Officials at the schools also cited more affordable tuition, smaller class sizes and new buildings or campuses as reasons for increased enrolled.

Barbara Hodgdon, who has been working toward an associate degree at Mesa Community College since 2005, said she came back to find a better job.

“I wanted to work with troubled kids,” Hodgdon said. “The only way I could do that was to get an education.”

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