SMC — When Alexandria Easter was laid off from her position as a retail graphic designer, she decided to forgo the job hunt to fulfill a long-time dream.

The Santa Monica College student is part of a growing population of adults who in the current economic climate were let go of their jobs and have returned to school to advance their career.

Easter, a Long Beach resident, had been attending SMC on a part-time basis since the summer of 2007, taking a few courses here and there, when she was recently laid off from PacSun. Rather than look for a new job, she instead decided to enroll full time in school to pursue a degree in art history.

The 37 year old had long regretted never finishing her studies at the University of Kansas, leaving school for a well-paying job as a designer in Kansas City.

She started her new gig as a full-time college student this week when the spring semester commenced.

“I decided to work toward getting a degree in hopes that I can change my career since retail seems to be volatile,” she said.

The college has seen its enrollment levels for the spring semester shoot up 10 percent, an indication that more students are returning to school to further their credentials.

“I think most people understand that education is an investment,” said SMC President Chui Tsang.

The college is currently battling its own set of economic challenges from the state, operating on a 5 percent reduction in funding this year.

“It’s important to serve as many students at this point when we have this kind of crisis,” Tsang said. “I don’t think this will continue but it’s important that students know they have a place to come when they are in need and we won’t slam the door on them.”

Tsang said that the college is preparing to weather the storm through a relatively strong economic reserve.

“We are trying to contain cost here and not have to make drastic cuts,” he said.

The increased enrollment is a trend that the community colleges in the state have seen in past recessions.

The California Community Colleges system as a whole experienced an increase of 100,000 students — or 9.8 percent — in fall 2008 from the previous academic year, said Ron Owens, the spokesman for the CCC’s Chancellor’s Office. There are 110 community colleges in the state.

“Historically, when the California unemployment rate increases or when economic times are bad, people that are laid off or underemployed go back to community college to improve themselves, improve their marketability, and improve their skill sets,” Owens said.

There are other reasons that can be attributed to the spike, including the fact that the University of California and California State University are redirecting thousands of students to the community colleges because they are experiencing cuts at their level, Owens said. More students are also looking to attend a community college before transferring to a university because of the lower tuition, which costs $20 a unit.

“It’s a perfect storm of all these factors contributing to the increase in our enrollment,” he said.

Owens said he expects enrollment to continue increasing.

Going back to school will offer Easter a chance to change her career.

She is hoping to transfer to either UCLA or Long Beach State and eventually go for her master’s degree. The goal is to work in museum curation.

Easter said has met older students in her classes who are unsatisfied with their careers and exploring a different field.

“I absolutely love going to school and I feel like it has a really positive effect on my confidence as a person,” she said. “I really feel like it’s going to create a really positive change in my career and the path that I’m on.”

melodyh@smdp.com

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