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Crowded community colleges hit crunch time

Published: Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Updated: Tuesday, May 1, 2012 15:05

In a previous stint at DCCC, he had to take remedial math. The course was a traditional lecture class, and he never completed it.

Last fall, he was told he had to take the course again. But this time, he was able to work at his own pace, with the professor there to assist.

Not only did he complete the course this time; he also learned something that had eluded him: He finally mastered long division.

“I don’t even need a calculator,” Lamey said.

Nick Fasciocco, as it turned out, was released from his remedial writing course when the professor saw he could do the work. He stuck with his remedial reading class and discovered that he could enjoy reading. He completed his remedial math class, too, with help from a peer-support program.

Now he wants to go on to earn a bachelor’s degree.

“You can’t be management without a bachelor’s,” he said.

Veterans, helped by the GI Bill, are also depending on community colleges to help them get a foothold in a tough economy.

At a Rite-Aid drugstore not far from her mother’s West Deptford, N.J., home where she lives, A.J. Greenetz preaches the gospel of good nutrition to anyone willing to listen. In a couple of weeks’ time, she would be talking to a fifth class, and later a bunch of mothers.

The talks are unpaid. She views them as resume-builders, down payments on the dietetic technician’s career she hopes one day to have, that she is studying for at Camden County College.

Hope, however, is the operative word.

“I’m terrified to be done with school,” said Greenetz, 30. “It terrifies me beyond belief that I’m not going to be able to find a job.”

For military veterans such as Greenetz — she served four years with the Navy — the 2011 unemployment rate for veterans in her age group was 12 percent. For younger veterans, 18-to-24-year-olds, the jobless rate was much worse — 30 percent.

“I’m just so thankful I have the GI Bill,” she said. She lives off that and disability benefits — not what she expected.

After graduating from West Deptford High School, she got a job at a nursing facility doing direct care.

“I wiped behinds,” she said. “I wanted a change.”

She enlisted in the Navy in 2003 and was stationed stateside. She ended up as a payroll clerk.

“It was fun. I loved it.”

When she got out in 2007, the economy was still intact. She landed a management job with a painting and drywall company. She was making about $40,000, plus benefits. She splurged and bought herself a Dodge Ram truck and a Honda motorcycle.

“I had no clue,” she said, “that the economy was literally going to snap overnight.”

But sure enough, the work started to slow down. She started picking up a paintbrush just to keep busy. In early 2009, she was let go.

She turned to school, studying to become a dietetic technician. The counseling staff she spoke to was upbeat.

“They told me it was great and up-and-coming,” she said of dietetics.

Since then, however, she has seen discouraging employment statistics and is wondering if she will need a bachelor’s and if the GI Bill will cover it.

Meanwhile, she pays rent in her mother’s house. Her girlfriend, a teacher, also lives at home. They can’t afford their own place.

“I thought I would have a house by now,” Greenetz said. “I was making the right moves. It all disappeared.”

Despite the challenges, community colleges still offer hope when other roads seem closed.

Take Alex Sellen, 20, of Southampton, Pa.

His dream: broadcast journalism. He’s banking on Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications to help attain it.

But, he wasn’t ready when he graduated from William Tennent High School in Warminster, Pa.

“I wasn’t an overachiever,” he said, laughing now. He applied to only Temple University, and he didn’t get in. “I didn’t have a backup plan.”

So he enrolled at Bucks County Community College in Pennsylvania.

“I didn’t have a great perception of Bucks,” Sellen admitted. “I had heard that’s where losers go. I couldn’t have been more wrong.”

Between growing up a bit and being away from the distraction of his buddies, he blossomed at Bucks. He got involved in campus life and graduated with a 3.8 grade-point average.

A high school project whetted his appetite for journalism. Last fall, he started as a junior at Syracuse.

Following his dream has its costs. For the coming school year, the cost of attending Syracuse is $55,600 including tuition, room and board, and fees. Even with financial aid, he’ll have about $60,000 in loans to repay by the time he graduates.

“In one respect, it kind of stresses me out,” Sellen said. “On the other hand, it’s motivational. I’ve got to succeed.”

Yes, he has heard all dire projections for his generation. And even in a kinder economy, journalism is a tough career nut to crack. He’s undeterred.

“I don’t want to spend the rest of my life doing something just because I could get a job in it.”

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