Thursday, December 17, 2009

Students of All Ages Throng to Community Colleges in Economic Downturn

/PRNewswire/ -- Enrollments at the nation's community colleges surged dramatically over the last two years, driven by economic uncertainty and growing joblessness, according to a new study released today by the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).

From fall 2007 to fall 2009, credit enrollments increased by an estimated 16.9% nationwide, from 6.8 million students in 2007 to an estimated 8 million students last fall. Full-time enrollments for the same two-year period rose 24.1%. Total headcount from fall 2008 to fall 2009 increased 11.4%.

The historic enrollment increases were fueled by factors that brought both new high school graduates and returning adult learners in droves to community college classrooms. For younger students and their families, lower tuitions and other costs at community colleges presented an affordable option. Average tuition and fees at community colleges are $2,544 versus an average $ 7,020 at public four-year institutions and $26,273 for private four-year institutions.

For older adult learners, unemployment or threats of job loss reinforced the importance of college degrees and new skills training to get or keep a job today. Both new grads and adult learners benefited from a growing number of partnerships community colleges forged with business, industry and high schools, the study reported.

The largest percentage change occurred in U.S. towns, as students and families sought more affordable postsecondary options closer to home. Geographically, the Rocky Mountain region (Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah and Wyoming) saw the largest percentage increase in total enrollment with part-time enrollment outpacing full-time. In the far West, however, the opposite trend prevailed as full-time enrollment exceeded part-time. The same was true in states of the Mideast, Great Lakes and Southeast, while a balance between full-time and part-time enrollment growth characterized states in New England, the Plains and the Southwest.

Among lessons learned by reporting colleges as they faced substantial enrollment growth, was the need to encourage early application for financial aid among existing and potential students in the face of heightened demand and to maintain a higher degree of operational flexibility, as states imposed both annual and mid-year budget cuts that critically affected community college funding and capacity. To continue improving access and success, researchers concluded that all citizens should be made aware of federal financial assistance programs available to them and that articulation policies should be improved to smooth transfer between two-year and four-year institutions.

A further finding of the study is the degree to which community colleges are now using data to drive campus decision-making. Respondents note they are using historical enrollment data as well as data from local business and industry -- such as pending plant closures -- to predict enrollment shifts. See more on this trend at www.communitycollegetimes.com .

The AACC survey was sent to all AACC member colleges, which represent over 90% of all public two-year institutions. The response rate was 38.2%.

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