In the fall semester of 2009, North Carolina’s community colleges were hit concurrently with a surge in enrollment and fall in funding so severe that Randolph Community College President Robert Shackleford dubbed it a “perfect storm.”

At his central North Carolina school, enrollment increased 16 percent while state funding dropped 11 percent. This predicament led Shackleford to ask some professors to teach as many as eight classes — equivalent to 24 contact hours, or hours in front of students, per week — in a single semester. For comparison, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), the regional accrediting agency, suggests a limit of 15 contact hours per week.

Such drastic actions nearly had some very serious repercussions for Randolph — a potential loss of accreditation by SACS. Colleges must be accredited to receive federal financial aid.

Shackleford said Randolph has had it tough over the past three years, claiming that enrollment increased 35 percent while state funds decreased by 15 percent. But North Carolina Community College System Executive Vice President Kennon Briggs says Randolph was hardly alone.

Statewide, high unemployment from the down economy led to an extra 31,000 students enrolling in community colleges in 2009-10. It was, Briggs said, “the largest academic year enrollment growth in the system’s history.” Since the state (the source of two-thirds of the colleges’ funding) funds the system in arrears — meaning the colleges get paid for students they teach a year after they have taught them — this surge in enrollment put an especially acute strain on community colleges.

Many other community colleges were faced with either turning away students, cutting classes, or asking teachers to teach more. Nearly all of them asked teachers to take on an extra class, Briggs said. Randolph was just the only one to get in trouble with its accrediting agency for its teaching loads.

SACS officials arrived in September 2009 for their once-a-decade review. The independent accrediting agency does not have a codified limit on teaching loads, but officials said eight classes per semester were unacceptable. They objected because, as Shackleford put it, “when faculty teach this many hours, your education quality outcomes are sacrificed.” Consequently, Randolph received a warning from SACS, pending further review.

After hiring 35 new instructors, Shackleford is hoping to SACS will accredit the college fully when it reports back in June. He also downplayed the burden on faculty during fall 2009. Eight three-hour-per week classes constituted only slightly more per semester than the usual limit of 21 weekly contact hours. “I did not receive a single complaint from a faculty member,” he noted.

Moreover, a community college’s faculty’s “job is to teach,” according to Shackleford. Faculty members don’t have research responsibilities as they do in the UNC system, he said. “Our faculty aren’t evaluated and they don’t receive tenure based on publications, grants, and research,” so teaching loads are higher.

Furthermore, Shackelford pointed out, many faculty teach multiple sections of the same class. This doesn’t require as much preparation as it may appear. “If you’re teaching six classes, say eighteen hours,” he continued, “you’re probably teaching two sections of one class, two sections of another class, so you probably have three preparations, not six.” Professors still have more papers and tests to grade, he admitted. Still, the average teaching load for fall 2009 was 21 hours, within acceptable limits, and it was meant to be temporary.

Since 2009, the situation has improved, Briggs explained. The large influx of students in that year resulted in a substantial increase in funding the following year, allowing for an eased teaching load on faculty.

With enrollment growth slowed, the fall 2009 episode is unlikely to repeat in the near future. “We’re still growing,” said Briggs, “but clearly not at the pace we were.”

Duke Cheston is a reporter/writer for the John W. Pope Center for Higher Education Policy (