FRESNO, Calif. – Rhonda Lawrence of Hanford, Calif. – who at 56 is hunting for a stable job in an unstable economy – enrolled at a community college to learn how to care for psychiatric patients.

“Who would have thought that I would be starting a brand-new profession at my age?” said Lawrence, a former flight attendant and former real estate sales manager. “Come on. This is ridiculous. Actually, I’m up against a wall.”

Thousands of similar students – people battered by layoffs or fearful of losing their jobs – will flock to community colleges this fall for retraining or polishing job skills, officials say.

Community colleges, however, don’t expect to get enough money from the state to cover the cost of educating the new students.

Valley community colleges anticipate that fall semester enrollments on some campuses might jump as much as 11 percent over the previous year – in part because of the economy.

“When there are jobs, people go to work,” said Steve Renton, spokesman for College of the Sequoias in Visalia, Calif. “When there aren’t jobs, people go to school to get training for work.”

The economy has not been kind to Lawrence, who is single.

People were afraid to travel after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 – Lawrence said she was furloughed and eventually resigned from her airline. She switched to real estate, but was laid off because of the slowing housing market.

“I’m just praying to God that this psychiatric technician job is the answer for me,” Lawrence said.

Lawrence started an accelerated program at West Hills College last August to become a technician – someone who gives medical and mental health care to the mentally ill in prisons and state hospitals after being licensed by the state. Technicians also work with the developmentally disabled.

Because community colleges save students time and money, they are attractive to many older students who need a career change, experts said.

At Fresno City College, for example, annual class fees are $480, assuming a student takes 12 units of course credit each semester. Undergraduates taking the same number of units each semester at California State University, Fresno will pay $3,687 in 2008-09 for fees.

Spending four years at a CSU doesn’t guarantee a job, said Lawrence, who feels life rushing past her: “I already have some friends who are retired, and I’m still trying to find a decent job.”

Meanwhile, even people who still have jobs are looking to community colleges for career options. Mark Espinosa, for example, is a 51-year-old telecommunications salesman from Fresno. He’s worried about job security – even after 16 years with his company – because of the tough economy.

So, Espinosa enrolled last week at City College to become a paralegal. “I feel like being in that line of work would give me some insurance – a backup plan to earning money,” he said.

Students such as Espinosa are expected to help boost City College’s enrollment to 24,725 for the fall semester, a 6 percent increase over the year before.

“It’s very typical for community college enrollments to go up when the economy turns down,” said Guy Lease, interim president of City College. “The irony is, that’s typically when the state doesn’t have the money to fully fund us.”

Community colleges get about two-thirds of their money from the state budget, and the rest from property taxes and student fees. State lawmakers have yet to pass a new budget this summer, but the community college system expects to receive the 1.7 percent increase proposed by Gov. Schwarzenegger, said Chris Yatooma. Yatooma is director of fiscal planning for the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office in Sacramento.

The 1.7 percent increase – about $95 million – would pay for roughly 19,000 new students statewide. However, the state’s 110 community colleges are expecting about 32,000 new students during the 2008-09 school year.

State Center Community College District – which runs City College, Reedley College and smaller college centers in Madera, Oakhurst, Clovis and northeast Fresno – faces that predicament, officials say.

State Center is not cutting classes or laying off instructors or any employees – solutions that some community colleges use to cover budget problems.

Instead, the district might use carry-over money from its 2007-08 budget and will try to fill classes with the maximum number of students to be more cost-efficient, said State Center Chancellor Tom Crow.

The state community college system also might shuffle some of the $95 million proposed by Schwarzenegger – sending more to growing districts such as State Center and none to districts in other parts of the state with stable enrollments, Crow said.

West Hills Community College District, which has campuses in Coalinga and Lemoore, is trying to cope with a tight budget by cutting some class sections, which probably will increase class size, said Chancellor Frank Gornick. In addition, fewer part-time instructors might teach this year. But the college did not lay off any full-time teachers, he said.

“It does create problems in availability of some courses,” Gornick said. “But we don’t usually turn anyone away _ that’s for sure.”

© 2008, The Fresno Bee (Fresno, Calif.).

Visit The Fresno Bee online at http://www.fresnobee.com/

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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