A sagging economy and a surge in financial aid have swelled the student ranks at Rogue Community College by 29 percent this fall term.
"There's plenty of money out there for people to get their hands on for school," said Phoenix resident Ryan Tuff. "If it wasn't for these opportunities, I wouldn't be in school right now."
Tuff, 18, who also works part time, is studying human services and substance abuse issues with hopes of getting into a career as a police officer. He helped boost the number of students, both full and part time, at the college to 9,947, which is 2,215 more than last fall.
RCC's Table Rock Campus, which offers more technical and vocational training, saw a 63 percent jump, with 1,116 students registered, compared with 686 a year ago.
The number of full-time equivalent students stands at 1,453 so far this term, compared with 1,134 last fall, a 28 percent increase. A full-time equivalent is determined by one or more students who take a total of 510 classroom hours a term.
RCC credits the increase to students looking to improve their skills in a region hit by high unemployment and pay cuts.
For January through mid-September, RCC has awarded $32 million in financial aid to nearly 12,000 students. Almost as many students signed up for financial aid in the first nine months of this year as in 21 months in the previous period.
Even with more students and increased financial aid, the school has seen its funding from the state shrink, making it more difficult for students to find the courses they need.
"A lot of classes are full," said Margaret Bradford, spokeswoman for RCC. "The student may have to take a class at a time they don't want, or a class that they don't want."
Cory Sweet, who returned to RCC this fall after last taking classes there in 2000, said he was told to register as soon as possible to get the classes he needs.
The 27-year-old engineering student said he got everything he wanted, but other students weren't so lucky, ending up choosing less popular classes that didn't have waiting lists.
Sweet works part time in a sales job and said he is at a better age to determine his educational goals than he was nine years ago.
"Now I have life experience to say this is where I need to apply," he said.
Sweet said grants are allowing him to take 13 units while continuing to work part time to pay his bills.
Kelly Gray, who held his 6-month-old in his arms, said he was returning to school after going from a high-paying job to minimum wage in the midst of a very tight job market.
"I'm moving out of state — there's no work here," said the 34-year-old father of four. "I'm going to lose my house, probably."
Gray, who lives in Medford, said he plans to major in business, and hopes one day to get a law degree. He said he plans to stay in the Rogue Valley until he can find a job elsewhere.
Sara Secor had worked at a local hospital, but watched her hours steadily dwindle, making it a struggle to raise her 2-year-old, Joseph.
To speed up her education as a physician assistant, the 22-year-old Central Point student is taking 21 credits, funded by financial aid and student loans.
As she walked around campus, Secor said her story is one shared by many classmates.
"I hear a lot of students saying they've had pay cuts, or had their hours cut or they lost their jobs," she said.
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.