Upstate New York college officials say they have seen or expect to see a spike in the number of people returning to school because of tough economic times.

Upstate New York college officials say they have seen or expect to see a spike in the number of people returning to school because of tough economic times.

In an economic slump, two- and four-year colleges, private business colleges and specialized schools or programs see a boost in enrollment, said Neil Murphy, president of the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse.

“Whenever you have an uptick in unemployment, you generally find that some of those unemployed go back to refine their skills,” Murphy said.

Some individuals return to school to finish degrees, obtain advanced degrees or to study a discipline that is in an advancing business sector, he said.

Tracy Roberts, 38, of Holland Patent, N.Y., said she returned to school at the Utica School of Commerce because she was in search of better wages.

“I just needed a better wage to support me and my children, and these days, you just can’t get it without a degree,” said Roberts, who has two teenage daughters.

“And even though I have years of experience working in an office environment, you just can’t get the competitive wage not having the degree.”

Roberts is working on an insurance associate certificate and a two-year degree as an administrative specialist.

Murphy said that jobs with the highest demand for workers are in the insurance and health care sectors, as well as in high-tech manufacturing, nanotech, robotics or in professions that develop ways to increase manufacturing efficiency.

Some people take courses without moving toward obtaining a degree and instead choose to take classes that teach technical writing, refine speaking skills or provide computer training, Murphy said.

Colleges have seen these trends:

- Between this year and last, Utica School of Commerce saw a 20 percent jump be in nontraditional students – those who left school regardless of age and have returned compared to last year.

- Utica College hasn’t yet seen, but is anticipating, a boost in enrollment by people wanting to increase their skills because of the nation’s economic woes.

- Mohawk Valley Community College has seen a steady rise during the past three years in the number of nontraditional students. The college defines nontraditional students as those who are 25 and older.

In 2006, the number of nontraditional students was 1,302; in 2007 it was 1,371; and this year the number is 1,395.

- Herkimer County Community College has also seen an increase in students 22 or older.

In fall 2006, the college saw an enrollment of 1,163 nontraditional students. In fall of the following year, the number dipped to 1,138 but preliminary numbers had increased to 1,252 for September 2008.

HCCC also expects a larger number of other learners within the nontraditional category, said Rebecca Ruffing, interim director of public relations for the college.

“A lot of that population are taking the classes online and they include veterans, which is also on the increase,” Ruffing said.

“I can’t point to data that can tell me why each of those students chose to come here, but the admissions office, based on conversations with those students, believes that those students are coming in because of the tough economic times.”

Richard Haubert, assistant director of communications for Mohawk Valley Community College, said today’s market has forced individuals to add to what they already know.

Patrick Quinn, vice president for enrollment management at Utica College, said officials are preparing for an influx of students because of the economy.

Between 15 percent to 20 percent of the students at UC are adult learners, or students who have returned to school to improve or change their careers, Quinn said. That percentage does not include those students pursuing graduate degrees, he said.

Leslie Crosley, director of admissions at USC, said between 60 percent and 65 percent of the school’s total enrollment is made up of nontraditional students.

“We have a large number of students who come in as nontraditional students,” Crosley said. “Some are working and want to increase their skills. Others tried college and then stepped out for a while and are now returning.”

USC could not provide information about whether the school has seen changes in enrollment during economic downturns.

Observer-Dispatch