Correction to This Article
This article gave incorrect information about student enrollment growth at Prince George's Community College. Enrollment increased by at least 4 percent each of the past two years, and the trend is expected to continue. The school, which provided incorrect information, said earlier that enrollment had increased by 5 percent from fall 2008 to spring 2009.

Economic Downturn Elevates Community College Enrollment

By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 31, 2009

The troubled U.S. economy is driving more students than ever to Washington area community colleges and prompting some private four-year schools to dip into their waiting lists to meet fall enrollment targets, according to school officials.

Tens of thousands of students here and across the country are choosing community colleges for the first time. One-quarter of the enrollment growth at all two- and four-year colleges in Virginia over the past year occurred at Northern Virginia Community College, officials said.

Across the country, students are rethinking plans to attend expensive private colleges and universities. High unemployment rates and decimated stock portfolios have driven families to find less-expensive alternatives.

"Anybody who says the economy is not having an impact is kidding you or themselves," said Charles Deacon, Georgetown University admissions dean.

Erica Espinosa, 18, who is graduating from Northwest High School in Germantown, was accepted at the University of Maryland at College Park, which costs $21,163 for tuition, fees and housing. She also got into several other four-year schools.

But she chose a full scholarship honors program at Montgomery College, where she can attend for free and live at home. Twin sister Ivone will study there, too.

"It's a way to save money and have money to pay for the next two years and not come out with a big debt," she said. "It's too risky now to try anything else."

More students are asking schools for financial aid -- and colleges and universities are increasing its availability. A survey of several hundred schools across the country by the nonprofit National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities showed an average 9.2 percent boost in aid for 2009-10, with 92 percent of schools saying they would increase financial aid budgets.

At some schools, including highly selective universities, fewer students are deciding to attend.

Georgetown, for example, has accepted 120 students from its waiting list for a freshman class of 1,580 and expects to admit about 150 as families reassess their financial situations over the summer. (In a normal year, as many as 100 may come off the waiting list, Deacon said.) Catholic University also found its rate of acceptance slightly lower than usual, and officials there said they believe it is because of the economy.

Meanwhile, less-expensive public four-year universities are having no difficulty meeting their enrollment goals. Shannon Gundy, admissions director at the University of Maryland at College Park, said anyone still hoping to move off the freshman waiting list for fall should give up.

Community colleges, especially those that have honors programs and that are considered steppingstones to four-year colleges, are seeing an unprecedented boom in applications and enrollments, school officials said. They cost much less than a four-year school.

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