Recession increases comm. college enrollment

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) âÄî College freshman Elizabeth HebertâÄôs choice of a four-year school suddenly got too expensive. George Haseltine already has a business degree, but he concluded after several layoffs that he needed more training to get work. So, in the middle of this school year, both landed at New Hampshire Technical Institute, which like other community colleges across the country has suddenly grown a lot more crowded. The two-year schools are reporting unprecedented enrollment increases this semester, driven by students from traditional colleges seeking more bang for their buck and by laid-off older workers. But community colleges arenâÄôt exactly cheering in this down economy: Tuition doesnâÄôt come close to covering costs, and the state funds used to make up the difference are drying up. Final figures arenâÄôt in for this semester, but a national group representing community colleges says the average increase from spring-to-spring is dramatic, and similar to what New Hampshire is reporting at its seven schools âÄî a range of 4 percent to 19 percent. The figure is 20 percent in Maine and South Carolina. One school in Idaho has more than twice the number of students this spring over last. Last fall, Hebert, of Antrim, began her first semester at Eastern Nazarene College in Massachusetts. But as the economy fell, she began rethinking the thousands of dollars in loans she was carrying âÄî at age 18. âÄúIt was the realization of paying $30,000 a year for four years, and then to take that in loans, it was just way too much,âÄù said Hebert, who is now paying $3,000 a semester at NHTI. Haseltine, 25, of Rochester, said he was tired of being laid off from various jobs, so he drives almost an hour for his two-year criminal justice program. He hopes to become a police officer. âÄúThe economy being in shambles pretty much; being constantly laid off; and not having lucrative job offers,âÄù he said. âÄúThey are three reasons why.âÄù Nationwide, the average annual cost of community college is $2,402, compared to $6,585 in tuition and fees at in-state public four-year schools, according to the College Board. Average tuition and fees for private four-year schools: $25,143. Factoring in financial aid, the College Board estimates the average net cost at community colleges is only about $100. âÄúWe have seen it even more and more, mom and dad saying âÄòCome back home, we canâÄôt afford it,âÄôâÄù said Jim McCarthy, admissions director at PennsylvaniaâÄôs Northampton Community College, where spring enrollment is 10.4 percent higher than a year ago âÄî and for the first time is higher than it was in the fall semester. New Hampshire is marketing the transfer trend. âÄúI was going to a much larger school out of state and paying $45,000 a year to go there,âÄù straight-A business major Elizabeth Leone says in a TV ad. âÄúI am getting a better experience here at NHTI and itâÄôs more affordable and closer to home.âÄù Leone transferred last fall after racking up $20,000 in loans and putting $5,000 more on credit cards for her first year at college in Pennsylvania. She couldnâÄôt imagine how much more she would have had to borrow to return. Going to a community college doesnâÄôt require giving up on hopes for a bachelorâÄôs degree, since credits often transfer to four-year schools. States including New Hampshire, Maryland and New Jersey have made it easier for students to begin their higher education at a community college and end it at a university. Several community colleges can trace a bump in enrollment to area layoffs. In Boise, Idaho, after semiconductor maker Micron Technology laid off 1,500 workers, 243 students enrolled at the Larry Selland College of Applied Technology for this spring, more than double last springâÄôs enrollment. Northampton waives a semesterâÄôs tuition for people laid off in the last 12 months because of the economy. This semester, 260 students enrolled through the program, more than twice what the school expected. So why, with enrollment skyrocketing, are many community colleges hurting? âÄúI get that every place I go,âÄù said John Fitzsimmons, president of MaineâÄôs community college system. âÄúPeople canâÄôt understand, with more customers, why that isnâÄôt good news.âÄù Tuition covers just 25 percent of the cost of education in MaineâÄôs system. Other community colleges vary, but all depend on counties or states that in many cases are cutting their funding. Maine reported spring enrollment increases of 20 percent, after laying off employees and leaving vacant positions open to cope with a $2.9 million state cut. At Wake Technical Community College in North Carolina, the president and two vice presidents are teaching classes because of a $2.3 million cut last fall. Arizona community colleges have absorbed $19.3 million in cuts and may lose all remaining state aid, said Norma Kent, spokeswoman at the American Association of Community Colleges. Some systems have had to reject thousands of applicants, she said. âÄúCommunity colleges are built on access, so for us to turn someone away is like a surgeon saying âÄòI wonâÄôt operate on someone who is having a heart attack,âÄôâÄù Kent said. Community colleges hope the impending federal economic stimulus plan will help keep the doors open. Competing House and Senate versions include billions of dollars for Pell Grant financial aid, long-delayed facility improvements and expansions and job retraining programs. MaineâÄôs Fitzsimmons is all for it, saying âÄúintellectual infrastructureâÄù deserves as much stimulus as roads and bridges. âÄúTaking people out of the unemployment lines and putting them in school is a great way to take pressure off the economy,âÄù he said, âÄúand when we come out (of the recession) we will have people with higher skills and better opportunities waiting for them.âÄù