When Josh Allen started a list of possible college picks during his high school senior year, the economy’s downward spiral had yet to fully materialize. By the time graduation had come and gone last spring, though, the picture had become much more clear, however bleak.
“When the stock market fell so hard, that had a big impact on where I decided to go to school,” said the 19-year-old Sandpoint native, who hopes to become an anthropologist in the future.
After considering the tuition costs at some Northwest universities, such as Montana State University in Bozeman, and the University of Idaho, it didn’t take long before another option jumped to the top of Allen’s list, a two-year community college that’s even closer to home. Now in his second semester at North Idaho College, with possibly one more before heading off to pursue his bachelor’s degree, Allen said the decision to start small has already paid off.
“This is just a good place to start out. It’s not as big as other schools, it’s cheaper, and you still get a good education compared to four-year schools,” he said, while eating lunch in the cafeteria of the Edminster Student Union building on the second day of the spring semester classes. “I definitely got my money out of it.”
Across the country, community colleges are seeing an enrollment boom, even as the economy continues to experience a financial pounding. In the face of global competition in the work place and layoffs in once-strong industries such as construction and real estate, more and more people of all ages are relying on a higher education, whether with an associate’s, bachelor’s or master’s degree, to land a more secure job.
“Students have been hit hard in the last few years,” said Erna Rhinehart, communications and marketing director at North Idaho College. With Kootenai County residents looking at a tuition fee of $1,133 for more than eight credits per semester, Rhinehart added, “This is one of the reasons we’re so popular: Our tuition rates are extremely affordable compared to four-year colleges. We’re like half the cost of going to the University of Idaho or Boise State.”
According to the American Association of Community Colleges Web site, two-year institutions serve almost half of the undergraduate students in the United States, with a total enrollment of 11.5 million last year, including 6.5 million students in credit courses and another five million in noncredit courses. Community colleges generally serve two primary purposes; preparing students for transfer to 4-year institutions and providing workforce training.
Behind that enrollment increase is the cost, an important consideration for college students, parents and a public that are by and large reeling and wary of digging into debt. The average annual tuition fees at public community colleges is $2,361, while tuition fees at four-year public colleges is $6,185 per year, the American Association of Community Colleges’ statistics show.
The upward enrollment trend seen at community colleges nationwide is reflected at Coeur d’Alene’s lakeside campus.
Since 1998, total enrollment at NIC increased by more than 1,400 people to a record of about 5,000 current students, which includes full- and part-time students. Meanwhile, applications have increased by 22 percent since last spring and overall enrollment rose roughly 3 percent, though those numbers are unofficial at the start of the new semester and won’t be officially tallied until later on, Rhinehart said. Full-time student enrollment also has increased.
“From the number of apps we get, people are considering us as their first choice more often,” she explained.
The only area where the college saw a drop was in new dual-credit enrollment, which is a category consisting of high school students who also are taking college courses and are ineligible for financial aid. Continuing dual-credit students, first-time freshmen and new transfer students all grew in numbers over the last year. “We think that decrease is because of the economy and because they are not eligible for financial aid,” Rhinehart said.
In Moscow, the University of Idaho has experienced a slight increase in enrollment according to the most recent statistics, up more than 1 percent from fall 2007 to fall 2008, said Steve Neiheisel, assistant vice president for enrollment management at the university. In-state, full-time undergraduate students pay $4,632 per semester.
However, he added, four-year institutions typically aren’t the places people turn to during tough financial times.
“Community colleges in general, I think, see the impact of a downturned economy first,” Neiheisel said, adding that it creates a situation “where there are a lot of people who want a career change. All of these things add up to more people going to school, and that’s a fairly well-documented phenomenon.”
As more students start pursuing a higher education through community colleges, Neiheisel said four-year schools are learning the importance of honoring those previous course credits. “We have to recognize the reality that students are going to choose the transfer route,” he said, adding that the University of Idaho is working with about 10 community colleges in the area, including NIC, to maximize transfer credits.
With the tuition costs playing such a pivotal role, both Rhinehart and Neiheisel said it’s important to note that financial aid and a wide variety of scholarships are available for any student. In fact, the amount of money available through federal programs such as Pell Grants has actually grown in recent years, Neiheisel said.
“You don’t have to be the 3.5 g.p.a. student to get a scholarship,” NIC’s Rhinehart said, offering as an example money set aside specifically for single moms.
Whether someone goes to college as a first-time freshman, or is a laid-off worker training for a new career, there is a higher education program that can help them meet their goals, Neiheisel said. It’s all a matter of what they want to do and how much time they’re willing to spend to get there.
“It’s a great investment, especially when you look at the lifetime earnings of someone with a bachelor’s degree versus someone without a bachelor’s degree, it’s up to $1 million more. It’s a great investment in value,” he said.
For students such as Scot Carpenter, college represents an opportunity to not only make a career change, it’s his chance to pursue a job with a more rewarding prospect.
With his sights now set on degrees in professional technical school and then graphic design, he said his prior job in construction helped guide the way. “It was all hard labor, and I threw out my back. It would be a waste of talent if I didn’t do something with what I’m good at,” he said, showing on his laptop a hand-drawn illustration scanned and placed over a digital image he created. “It would be nice if I could make a living with my hobby.”
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