At the postsecondary level, one byproduct of the ailing economy is a dramatic spike in the enrollment of students in community colleges.

The American Association of Community Colleges reported in "Community College Enrollment Surge" that student numbers for the two-year campuses in fall 2009 were 11.4 percent higher than the figures for fall 2008. In addition, full-time enrollment in community colleges climbed 24.1 percent from fall 2007 to fall 2009.

"At community colleges across the country, dislocated workers returned for retraining, traditional-age college students re-examined their options, and institutions were asked to do more with less fiscal support," the report states.

The enrollment increases might have been even higher if community colleges had the space and resources to accommodate the surge in demand. The association notes that many campuses did not have the capacity to serve all the students interested in attending.

Among the reasons identified for the enrollment spurt:

  • Workforce training

    Unemployed workers realized that a college certificate or degree was important for obtaining a job, or that enhancing a current skill set would help them keep their jobs or prepare for a career change.

  • Lower tuition

    Finances for many potential students have become more precarious, and the lower costs of two-year colleges became more appealing.

Coping with the sudden upswing in enrollment has taught community college administrators how to be better prepared for a similar occurrence in the future, the report says. Among the lessons learned:

  • Encourage potential students to apply early for financial aid. "For those who needed the financial support and did not anticipate needing to return to college, the wait for financial aid application processing meant the difference in being able to register for the courses they sought," the report says.

  • Use data from multiple sources to respond to changes in demand. Some institutions went beyond historical enrollment trends and used knowledge of pending plant and industry closings to prepare for shifts in their enrollment.

  • College leaders should reach out to the community (underserved populations, high schools and job-placement centers) to promote the value of a community college education.

  • Maintain flexibility in institutional operations to be better prepared to respond to dramatic environmental changes.

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at mkennedy@asumag.com.


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