October 29, 2009 in City

Community college enrollment up across the nation

Staff and wire reports The Spokesman-Review

The tradition of enrollment increases at community colleges during times of high unemployment rates is playing out across the nation as well as Inland Northwest.

A record high of about 11.5 million Americans ages 18 to 24, or nearly 40 percent, attended college in October 2008, according to a study of Census data released Thursday by the Pew Research Center. Virtually all the increase of 300,000 students over the previous year came at two-year schools, while attendance at four-year schools remained flat.

The Inland Northwest demographics and trends at two-year colleges are aligned with the national trend, officials said Thursday.

Community colleges saw attendance go up again this year. The American Association of Community Colleges reports growth rates of 10 percent and higher have been common this fall on many campuses.

North Idaho College, which operates on two-semester system, had a 16 percent increase in fall enrollment. Officials expect a repeat in the spring.

Community Colleges of Spokane is projecting a 5 to 6 percent enrollment increase through next spring. Officials say that figure would be higher if it weren’t for state budget cuts – $6 million for 2009-10.

“Last year was the highest enrollment we’d ever had, probably about 800 more than what the state funds. We will be at that or above this year,” said Gray Livingston, the chancellor.

“We were stifled by not being able to open new sections,” he added. “We aren’t able to give access to all the people who need access.”

If people want to get the necessary classes, they need to register as soon as possible, Inland Northwest college officials said.

Overall, college attendance has been going up for about 30 years; what’s new is the sharp uptick at community colleges, driven in large part by recessionary bargain hunting, unemployment rates and closer ties between two- and four-year colleges that give students more confidence they’ll be able to transfer, experts say.

The relative economic advantages of at least starting a degree at a community college have widened as prices at four-year colleges have shot up much faster.

Average tuition and fees at public two-year colleges ran just $2,372 this year, according to a study released last week by the College Board, compared to $7,020 at public four-year colleges and more than $26,000 at private ones.

Once government grants and other aid are factored in, community colleges are essentially tuition-free to the average student, though living expenses and books remain.

Livingston said the key is applying for financial aid early for next fall. There was a 35 to 40 percent increase in requests this fall. People who are applied late were frustrated because they are unable to get the money, he added.

President Barack Obama has made community colleges the centerpiece of his goal for every American to have at least some higher education credential by 2020, and earlier this year proposed spending $12 billion over the next decade to help community colleges graduate an additional 5 million people.

The House responded last month by passing a student aid bill that included about $10 billion in initiatives directly focused on community colleges. The Senate has not yet taken up the proposal.

Livingston said the federal money is out there, but right now it’s being used to backfill state shortages and for targeted areas, such as aerospace and allied health. “It hasn’t trickled down to the general students,” he added.

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