AUGUSTA  — Skyrocketing gas prices have forced Jami Childress to rethink everything about her college experience.

From how the 19-year-old sophomore from Unity picked her classes at Thomas College to what jobs she could take to pay for school, gas prices were always on her mind.

Childress said she has a 30-mile commute five days a week for her spring semester classes at Thomas in Waterville. The $30 a week spent on gas is already stretching her budget, which can’t absorb any more spikes in gas prices, she said.

This fall she’ll only be going to Thomas twice a week. 

“I made sure all my classes were Tuesdays and Thursdays to avoid driving to school every day,” Childress said.

She said she also had to rethink what summer jobs to take because she couldn’t afford to fill up her gas tank.

“I worked for Kraft Foods, driving from Bangor to Waterville, and I couldn’t keep up with (the gas prices),” she said of her decision to leave the job early.

She said she had to take a weekend job as a cashier at a grocery store closer to home to make money during the school year.

“I also cut back on what I spend because I know that I’m going to have to pay more for gas,” Childress said.

In response to the many students with similar concerns about gas prices, area colleges have been adding online courses, carpooling networks and other programs to help commuter students, according to college officials.

Most of the more than 430 students who commute to Thomas College, with 900 total students, are from within a 40-mile radius, according to Thomas Edwards, provost of the college. The college is working on a master plan to expand its campus and make other changes to give students more flexibility in scheduling, campus housing and other services, Edwards said in an e-mail.

At the University of Maine in Augusta, officials are bracing for a drop in fall enrollment  because some students can’t afford the commute, according to Jonathan Henry, dean of enrollment services. “We’re more concerned about fall, as the gas prices spike through the fall it may impact people’s decisions to enroll,” he said.

One student at UMA, Mike Zulu, is worried skyrocketing gas prices may soon make it tough to finish his college education without going deeper into debt.

He drives nearly 20 miles from Whitefield to get to class. It costs about $40 a week in gas for the commute and it’s already stretching his budget, Zulu, 22, said.

“With the gas prices rising, if you want to get books all the extra money you had for that is going to gas,” he said. “You either have to take out more loans or sacrifice having a book for a semester.”

As gas prices head toward $4 a gallon, Zulu said he is looking for more money to return to school in the fall and finish his degree. He said he already mixes loans, scholarships and financial aid to pay for the $5,500 tuition.

Zulu lives with his parents, has a work-study job on campus and has little room in his budget for more gas money, he said.

“I’m trying to figure out what other loans are available so I can finish,” he said.

The more than 5,000 students at UMA, with campuses in Augusta and Bangor and nine other sites across the state, are mostly adults who have to juggle jobs, families and the demands of going to college, Henry said.

“The average age is 31 and money is tight,” he said.

Henry said the college, which has no dormitories and students are all commuters, may offer more financial support if the price of gas continues to rise. It would involve adjusting financial aid programs based on the demand from students, who rely on college, state and federal money to pay for school, he said.

More faculty members, many commuting between Bangor and Augusta to teach, also started carpooling and taking public transportation when gas prices spiked in the past, Henry said.

There are public buses that students and faculty are able to ride for free by showing their college ID, according to Henry. The Kennebec Explorer buses are in the greater Augusta area, and the Bangor Area Transit buses run in Bangor, he said.

Zulu said he is thinking about driving to Gardiner to reach the bus stop closest to his home. “It’s still a little ways out, but driving halfway and riding the (bus) the rest of the way could be an option,” he said.  

Kennebec Valley Community College is launching a student information portal on its website, and a carpool network is one of the new online services because of the rising gas prices, according to Michelle Gayne, director of student development for the college.

Starting this fall, students will be able to log on to the portal to make carpool plans by connecting with other students from their area. The online network will improve on past failed attempts to connect people who want to share rides to class, she said.

“Before this, it’s been very grass-roots with a paper outside of my office,” Gayne said.

Most of the 2,500 students at Kennebec Valley Community College are from the Waterville area, but there are some who have an hour-long commute to campus, which has no on-campus housing, according to Jonathan Humphrey, the marketing specialist for the college.  

UMA increased its online courses by 26 percent because of the recession and past spikes in gas prices, according to Henry.

The number of courses offered through the Internet jumped from 185 in 2008 to 234 in 2009. It increased another 13 percent to 264 courses in the current school year.

Henry said the college made the change because fewer students were signing up for on-campus classes. Gas prices spiked in the summer and fall of 2008 and students said they wanted to cut back on trips to campus, he said.

“Instead of coming to campus three days a week, they wanted to come two days or one day,” Henry said of students mixing online and on-campus courses.

In the first week of registration for the upcoming summer semester, online course enrollment has increased 9.2 percent to 560, up from 513 last year. Students are also flocking to the interactive-TV classes, where UMA lectures can be viewed from home, with a 15 percent increase in credit hours compared to last year, according to Henry.

“Students are eating them up. Every time we offer an online course, they are the first to fill up,” Henry said.

David Robinson — 861-9287
[email protected]