Larry Smith didn't know what his life would hold 18 years ago when he left Tooele High School without a diploma.
Now, at age 36, he's worked enough construction, automotive and menial jobs to know he wants more, to know he never again wants to wake up in a homeless shelter.
"Starting at the bottom is really hard, and with the economy right now, if you ain't got the schooling, it's really tough," Smith said between classes at Horizonte Instruction and Training Center on Thursday. In late June, he enrolled at the Salt Lake City School District center to earn what he hopes will make all the difference -- his high school diploma. "I have the experience; I just don't have the degrees."
Smith is one of a multitude of Utahns who have returned to adult education programs in this down economy to earn GEDs, diplomas, to learn English, and beef up on basic skills. Statewide, enrollment in such adult education programs was up about 19 percent this past school year compared with the one before, according to the Utah State Office of Education. It's a boom that comes as adult education programs face 10 percent cuts in both state and federal funding this coming school year -- also because of the economy.
"The first people a company is going to let go are those who have trouble speaking English or those who don't have a diploma," said James Andersen, Horizonte principal. "They're starting to compete with folks who have higher skills for employment."
Utah's unemployment rate as of May 2009 was 5.4 percent. A year earlier it was only 3.3 percent.
For many, that means it's the perfect time to go back to school. Horizonte's adult education enrollment jumped nearly 26 percent this past school year over last.
Every school district in the state has an adult education program, and students pay what they can, up to a maximum of $100 a year for classes.
Abdul Popal, who moved to the U.S. about four years ago from Afghanistan, recently decided to give school another try as his employer cut his hours working in a warehouse. Now, the 25-year-old West Valley City man is taking classes at Horizonte to improve his English and earn a diploma.
"I want to finish school, and then I can go to college," Popal said.
Nooshi Nikpour, 27, who moved to the U.S. from Iran, said now is the right time for her to pursue a diploma and improve her English.
"With the economy down, we have to have more education [to get a] better job," Nikpour said.
Though many see the recession as a reason to head back to school, adult education programs throughout the state are also suffering because of the downturn. They're being asked to do more with about 10 percent less funding.
Horizonte is dealing with the cuts by not filling a couple of teaching positions. The school is also trying to replace some of the lost funding with money from other sources, such as foundations, Andersen said.
Granite School District's Granite Peaks adult program is consolidating some of its classes, offering them in fewer locations despite a roughly 20 percent jump in enrollment last school year, said Ken Kapptie, Granite Peaks adult education coordinator. He said the program had to cut back a couple dozen employees' hours.
Kip Bromley, adult education coordinator for the Alpine School District, said the cuts haven't been too bad for Alpine. Still, they make it more difficult to handle growing enrollment.
"You kind of have to spread yourself a little thinner," Bromley said.
Still, it's important the programs remain strong even as they face their own cuts, educators say.
"Coming into the job market now, just about at every turn, you're going to find a credential is required," Kapptie said. Each adult high school diploma and GED helps generate about $800 in state income taxes annually, according to the state office of education.
Plus, the centers often serve refugees and other immigrants who never had a first chance at an education, said Jeffrey Galli, adult education specialist at the state education office.
At Horizonte, Smith is grateful, now that he's older and wiser, for his second chance. The custodial worker hopes to eventually take college business management classes so he can move up the ranks professionally. So far, he said, he's understanding his course work and is on-track to make up the credits he needs for his diploma.
"This is just the beginning," Smith said.