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.
"We are predicting a student tsunami for next fall," said Robert Templin, president of Northern Virginia Community College.
Community colleges do not get the public attention of Ivy League schools, but they educate nearly half of the undergraduate students in the United States, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. The majority of black and Hispanic undergraduates study at these schools, and the overall student population is majority female.
"We are often so focused with four-year institutions that we don't look to community colleges, but they are getting a tremendous flow of people," said American University Provost Scott A. Bass. "They keep doing the job day in and day out, educating the generation of students who have the most trouble affording four-year private colleges."
At Northern Virginia Community College, enrollment last fall was up 4 percent from the previous year. In the spring, it was 6 percent higher than it was a year ago, and this summer it has increased 10 percent over the previous year. School officials are expecting a huge jump in fall. Annual enrollment is 67,000, but Templin said officials are expecting more than 70,000 students next year.
Even in the face of budget cuts -- the school receives about 45 percent of its funding from the state, compared with 60 percent four years ago -- NOVA is hiring full- and part-time faculty. An open-admissions school, it takes all students who want to attend.
At Montgomery College, fall 2008 credit enrollment was 24,452 students, up more than 2 percent from the previous fall, and spring 2009 enrollment was more than 5 percent higher than it was a year ago. Twenty new sections of math courses have been added at the Rockville campus for summer sessions, an increase of nearly 50 percent from past summer sessions.
"We purposely added classes in the upper levels, because we know we are attracting students who normally would have gone to four-year colleges but turned to Montgomery College because of our affordability," said media relations director Elizabeth Homan.
For fall, Montgomery County residents will pay $102 per credit hour in tuition. The costs are similar at other community colleges -- and contrast sharply with four-year colleges, especially private schools.
Tuition alone for incoming freshmen at George Washington University is $41,610 (total cost more than $52,000); at Georgetown, it is $38,616 (total cost more than $51,000). At the University of Maryland at College Park, tuition is a little more than $8,000.
Enrollment at Prince George's Community College -- where county residents will pay nearly $100 per credit hour -- has increased 5 percent from fall 2008 to spring 2009, which a spokesman described as an unusual jump. The numbers for this fall are expected to be even higher.
Experts say more students are looking for training that community colleges offer at a time when the changing economy is forcing many people into new industries.
But cost remains the central factor for many families. Although average tuition increases for four-year schools are at near-historic lows -- one survey by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities puts it at 4.2 percent, the lowest in at least 37 years -- the cost at some places is still staggering for many families.
A growing number of Americans are more worried than ever that their children will be priced out of the college experience. A new nationwide poll by Oppenheimer Funds found that nine in 10 Americans agree that if tuition costs keep rising, college will be unaffordable for most families. It also showed that 43 percent of Americans have saved less than $5,000 for college.
Financial aid applications at Montgomery College are up 20 percent for 2009-10 over a year earlier, with more than 10,000 already submitted for fall. The Maryland Higher Education Commission experienced growth in applications as well, and ran out of need-based grants faster this year than in the past, Homan said.