Community colleges’ enrollment traditionally increases with unemployment rates.
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.
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.
Two-year colleges in the Inland Northwest are aligned with the national trend, officials said.
North Idaho College had a 16 percent increase in fall enrollment. Officials expect a repeat in the spring.
Community Colleges of Spokane is projecting a 5 percent 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 Gary 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.”
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 with $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 percent to 40 percent increase in requests this fall. People who applied late were frustrated because they are unable to get the money, he added.