Student Tiffany Smith works on patient Juliana Castro on Tuesday in Trident Technical College's dental hygiene program. The program has had full classes since it began in 1990 and continues its run this year.

Tom Malaniak already had a college degree when he decided to enroll at Trident Technical College to earn certificates in computer networking.

The 37-year-old had a successful career as a probation officer, but that career path felt controlled, he said. Computer networking presents "an open field."

Malaniak is one of an overwhelming number of students at Trident this fall, where enrollment is up 20 percent compared to the same time last year. Much of that growth comes from students 25 to 44 years old.

The school is bursting at the seams with new students who want to learn skills to help them land new jobs or hold on to the jobs they have, or for many other reasons, said Trident President Mary Thornley.

On Wednesday, the third day of classes, 15,032 students were enrolled, compared to 12,567 students at the same time last year, said Cathy Almquist, the director of institutional research.

Julie Carullo, spokeswoman for the state's Commission on Higher Education, said she doesn't yet have official fall enrollment numbers for the state's higher education institutions. But in general, enrollment is on the rise at all institutions, with the largest increases at the state's 16 technical colleges.

Kelly Steinhilper, director of communications for the South Carolina Technical College System, said officials expect fall enrollment to be "up double digits across all of our colleges."

That appears to be a national trend as community colleges across the country are reporting record enrollments.

Thornley said Trident officials were expecting more students to enroll this fall, but they were surprised by the number who signed up. "Enrollment skyrocketed beyond what any of us forecasted," she said.

She attributes some of the increase to the downturn in the economy. Many adults who lost jobs are returning to school to improve skills and land new jobs. And, she added, Trident has a good reputation in the area.

In Malaniak's case, he needed some "hands-on" experience, he said. He's already earned a first-level certificate in Cisco Systems networking systems, and he's working on the second level. "Employers look for that," he said.

Thornley said the dramatic enrollment increase creates some challenges for the school. Faculty and staff members took on additional responsibilities last year to compensate for losses in state funding. And this year, all full-time salaried employees must either take 96 hours of unpaid furlough; work 96 additional hours to compensate for positions that haven't been filled; or a combination of the two.

And they are picking up an even heavier load dealing with more students.

"There's been some gnashing of teeth among deans and program heads" as they try to add more classes to meet the demand, Thornley said. And those extra classes are being held in conference rooms, and anywhere the school can find space. Parking on the main campus in North Charleston also is a challenge right now, she said.

But, Thornley added, "this is a problem I'm glad to have."

Almquist said programs that had large increases include criminal justice, in which enrollment is up 67 percent; and preparatory programs for nursing and allied health professions, which are up 48 percent and 44 percent respectively.

"There's a huge demand for health care workers," Almquist said. "When the economy gets tight, students pursue careers where they know there's a demand."

Almquist also reported a 37 percent increase in enrollment in technical programs such as computer technology and electrical engineering.

And many students trying to earn an associate degree are also working on job-specific certificates. For example, someone pursuing a degree in criminal justice also might want a certificate in crime scene investigation.

Thornley said that the growth in the number of students seeking certificates is likely related to the economy. "That tells you that's someone who needs to get a job in a hurry," she said.