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Economics lesson: High gas prices create dropouts

Community colleges are encouraging carpools, online courses and schedule changes to keep cash-strapped students enrolled.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Students at some of North Carolina's community colleges are changing their schedules - some are even skipping a semester - because of soaring gas prices.

The Herald-Sun of Durham reported Friday that students at some colleges told school officials they had to drop out of summer school because gas prices made their commutes too expensive. Other colleges are trying to ease the burden by suggesting that students take online classes or alter their schedules and come to campus fewer times a week.

"I've never had any student come to me to tell me that gas was an issue until this summer," said Wanda Maggart, Durham Technical Community College's senior vice president of institutional and student support services.

North Carolina Community College System spokeswoman Audrey Bailey said the dilemma is going to continue into the fall semester.

"We know that the gas prices are creating an especially difficult situation for our students," Bailey said. "We suspect more students will take classes via distance learning or they'll bundle classes."

She said some colleges including Wake Technical Community College and Durham Tech have better access to mass transit, but commuting problems will likely magnify in rural areas.

At Durham Tech, college officials partially attribute a decrease in summer enrollment to the gas costs. They said 2,321 students enrolled this summer, a 4 percent drop from the 2,429 students who enrolled last summer.

"Everyone complains to me about gas prices," said Christine Wright, Durham Tech's student body president. "Some of my former classmates had to drop out of their classes or just not enroll in summer.

"It's really hard, especially when I know the potential that a lot of my friends and anyone else on campus can have here on campus," she said.

Class attendance has also dwindled this summer, part of which students attribute to gas prices hiking the cost of a commute, said a Durham Tech freshman.

Four weeks ago, 20 students attended Kayla Turner's Spanish Class. Now, about eight show up, the 19-year-old told The Herald-Sun.

Kenny Lockamy, who drives to Durham Tech from Person County, said going to class costs him about $15 a day round trip. Earnings from his part-time job all go toward buying gas, he said.

"(That's) just to come to school, and that's if I don't do any other driving," Lockamy said. "I empathize with (other students) because I practically almost dropped out this past semester."

Durham Tech is encouraging students to carpool and schedule classes so more are on fewer days, counselor Nan Dernar said. Online enrollment also is up 14 percent from last summer, she said.

Catawba Valley Community College, in Hickory, has even set up a Web site to help students find carpooling partners.

"(Students) are telling me, 'If I can only be here one or two days out the week and I can take the rest of my classes online, I would be able to take these courses in the fall,'" Dernar said.

Wake Tech's chief academic officer Bryan Ryan said the college has tried to minimize the affects of high gas prices on the students by adding campuses and offering more online classes. As a result, they've seen increases in enrollment, he said.

"Even though prices are up for gas, we've actually reduced the commute to class that many students had to make by putting a campus near where they are," Ryan said.

The national gas price average Friday was $4.07, up from $2.99 a year ago, according to the AAA Daily Fuel Gauge Report.




Erin Hartness, Reporter
Pete James, Photographer
Matthew Burns, Web Editor

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