RUSKIN — When Hillsborough Community College opened its small, architecturally-hip campus in a vacant field off Shell Point Road in 2008, it was already behind the eight ball for space.
Instead of the expected enrollment of 400 students, 1,652 students attended the first year. The following year, enrollment grew another 50 percent. The year after that, 30 percent more students signed up for classes on the campus.
This year, after adding 18 portable classrooms over the past three years, enrollment has swelled to nearly 6,200 students.
Ashley Carl, director of marketing and public relations for HCC, attributes the huge numbers to a sense of community that campus president Allen Witt has created with his staff. “Word of mouth is still the best sales pitch” and Witt’s reputation for offering what the community needs has spread, she said.
Certainly, the poor economy has helped the numbers grow, Witt says. But while community college enrollment typically increases when the unemployment rate goes up, the South Shore campus’ figures have continued to increase despite a drop in the jobless rate, he said.
And with talk of an enormous Amazon.com warehouse coming to South Shore, there seems no end in sight for this continual campus growth spurt.
Opening the campus in a rural area of Hillsborough County has brought with it a special list of challenges and priorities, Witt said.
Unlike on many community college campuses, where students are living at home and going to school full time while their parents are paying the bills, HCC’s South Shore campus is heavily Hispanic. It is a culture where students are more likely to graduate high school, move out on their own, get married and start families, sometimes immediately.
“A lot of people don’t understand that South Shore is a unique community,” Witt said. “People don’t want to drive to Temple Terrace or downtown Tampa for classes. Almost all our students are first generation college, and most are first generation high school graduates.” The campus caters to their needs, he said.
“The staff does a lot of community outreach and talking about the programs and services we offer,” Carl said. “Overwhelmingly, these are students going for their Associate of Arts degrees so they can move on to four-year schools.”
Many are taking prerequisites offered at the South Shore campus that will get them into nursing and health science programs at the University of South Florida or elsewhere.
To that end, Witt and his staff are looking forward to a new $9.7 million science building they hope will be in place for the spring or summer session in 2015.
The new building has received approval from the district board of trustees, but the funding is not yet in place. When it is, the new building will be built just east of the existing structures and will house all science classes.
“We have one biology classroom and we need about five,” Witt said. “The new building will give us the high quality science classrooms we need” and free up existing space for general education classes.
“With a new hospital coming to the area and employment in the health care industries rising, the biological sciences have really taken off,” Witt said.
And if Amazon.com comes in and builds a 1 million square-foot assembly and distribution center next door — a plan the Hillsborough County Commission is working on — it will not only change the face of the HCC South Shore campus, it will change the entire community, he said.
“If Amazon comes in with a thousand employees, it will be the tip of the ice berg for us,” he said. “We’re all just waiting for that announcement.”
“It would be a game-changer,” sending dozens, if not hundreds of Amazon employees to the campus for continuing education and children of the employees to HCC for the first two years of college, Carl said.
“We don’t know exactly how it will change things,” Witt said. “But it will definitely change things.”