Despite budget cuts that are forcing pay cuts, job losses and crowded classrooms, more college students are enrolled in Southern Nevada now than in any spring semester in history.
And this comes after three decades of phenomenal growth in the region abruptly stopped.
This semester, according to preliminary enrollment numbers, 72,792 students attend University of Nevada, Las Vegas, the College of Southern Nevada and Nevada State College.
Overall, enrollment grew by 5 percent from the same period last year. At the same time, budgets have shrunk.
The bulk of the growth, as usual, was at the community college, where the student population is roughly double what it was a decade ago. This semester, more than 43,000 students attend CSN, up about 2,700, or almost 7 percent, over last spring.
Darren Divine, the college's interim vice president for academic affairs, said students often go back to school in a down economy.
"As the economy grinds on and you see folks in the construction and service industries, they see it's not going to bounce back immediately," he said. "They've kind of resigned themselves that it's time to go back and retool."
Nevada State's student population grew by more than 20 percent compared with last year, gaining about 500 students to top 2,600 this spring.
Even UNLV grew slightly, by about 400 students, to more than 26,000.
Overall enrollment is down a bit from the fall semester, as is typical at colleges and universities.
Higher education in Nevada took a 12.5 percent cut in state support last year and a 7 percent cut this year.
Tuition has increased and will rise again in the fall. Open jobs have been left vacant, schools have canceled class sections, and some staffers have taken a state-mandated pay cut as Nevada's tax revenues shrink.
Fred Maryanski, president of NSC, said the college has been able to handle the growth despite the cuts and rumors that the college is in danger of closing, which few in higher ed circles take seriously.
The college opened in 2002 with 177 students, and Maryanski said he expects the growth to continue.
"Things are going well here except for the budget," he said.
Student retention rose from 58 percent last year to 67 percent now, he said.
He said the most recent drop in state support will force him to trim about $1.2 million from the budget.
UNLV is expected to cut about $9 million next year. At the community college, cuts will total about $8 million.
The state college and the community college are expected to spread the losses across all departments at the schools.
That's how leaders at UNLV handled cuts in the past, but they say they can no longer do that. Instead, they're expecting to cut entire departments from the university next year.
UNLV Provost Michael Bowers said the school has handled the growth "with great difficulty," even though it is small.
"In many cases, we're simply not meeting the demands of growth," he said.
Bowers said university officials expect enrollment to be flat next year. It's possible, he said, that it could shrink slightly, depending on what departments end up being eliminated during the budget cutting.
If a department with a lot of students is cut, he said, "those students could go away and not come back."
Divine, from the community college, said the school's experiment with midnight classes this semester appears to be a success. The school is planning to offer more classes late at night, he said.
However, he said there may come a point soon where the school fills up and can no longer grow without more money. Most of the recent growth has been accomplished by filling up existing classes rather than adding new ones.
"We're rapidly reaching the point where the majority of the growth we could see is going to have to come in new (class) sections," Divine said. "And that's where it gets difficult."
In 2007, classes were 84 percent full overall. They were 91 percent full in 2008 and 95 percent full in 2009. If they get any fuller, there won't be room for anyone else, Divine said.
And, he said, there isn't any money to add more instructors or more classes.
The higher education system's chancellor, Dan Klaich, recently floated the idea that the community colleges might have to impose enrollment caps.
Divine said a situation where all the classes fill up before every student who wants to register has done so is, in effect, such a cap.
Contact reporter Richard Lake at rlake@reviewjournal. com or 702-383-0307.