For the first time in Maryland, the state's 19 community college campuses this fall have attracted more full- and part-time students than the 13 state-run, four-year institutions, reflecting what education officials say is the impact of a harsh economy.
In addition, the number of part-time students enrolled at all colleges in the state, both public and private, for the first time has topped the number of full-time students at the schools, the fall report of the state Board for Higher Education showed.
Enrollments held steady at the state's 13 four-year colleges and declined slightly at 23 private four-year schools -- another effect of economic pressures that are making more students concerned about getting and keeping jobs than pursuing academia, board officials said.
"People are turning to community colleges hoping they'll get a leg up on their jobs, or to get a job," said Sheldon H. Knorr, the higher education commissioner for the state. "The vocational component of community colleges has been the fastest growing field."
Knorr said "a lot of confusion" following cuts in federal student aid, including reductions in Pell grants, has led to fewer students seeking traditional college degrees. In hard times, he said, would-be full-time students become wary of making long-term commitments and instead opt for a piece-by-piece approach to being trained and educated.
The community colleges' enrollment of full- and part-time students this fall rose 5 percent over last year, totaling 101,562, the report showed. The number of students in academic programs has remained around 40,000 for the past five years, while the number of students enrolled for career enrichment has risen from 40,000 to more than 60,000, Knorr said.
At the state's 13 four-year colleges, 100,487 full- and part-time students are enrolled compared to last fall's 100,756.
"Instead of community colleges being a third or fourth choice, we're becoming a first and second," said Brent M. Johnson, executive director of the state Board for Community Colleges.
Upgrading of libraries and student centers, gyms with whirlpools, improved laboratory facilities and additional computers are attracting students who once set their sights beyond community colleges, Johnson said.
Price also is a consideration. Tuition at the average community college is about $66 a course for county residents -- a third or half the cost of four-year state colleges, state officials said.
But the main attraction is the quick payoff on career-enhancing courses and programs, the officials said. Expanded evening and weekend course schedules enable already-employed students to boost their credentials and their mobility in such areas of study as engineering technology, computer science and management.
At Prince George's Community College, enrollment for credit courses has climbed to 15,354 from 14,657 in the fall of 1981, said Robert C. Hardwick, assistant to the college president. Most of the growth has been in the college's nursing and data processing courses, and to such a degree that "we're not sure we can handle any more people," Hardwick said.
When registration at the college opened last week, Hardwick said he found lines for nursing and computer courses stretching 200 feet by 8 a.m.
"People are getting the message," he said. "In society these days, the unskilled person doesn't stand much of a chance."
Carl Galligan, dean of student affairs at Hagerstown Junior College, the state's oldest community college, said enrollment there has grown 5 percent over last fall. Hagerstown is the seat of Washington County, where unemployment at 18.2 percent was the state's highest in the first half of this year.
"What we're seeing is that a lot of new full-time students are choosing community college, even when they've been accepted at other schools, because they can't afford to go to four-year colleges," Galligan said.
Total enrollment at Montgomery College's three campuses this fall increased more than 6 percent, to 19,965 from last year's 18,753.
Not only the community colleges, but also the state's four-year schools are expanding course offerings in response to the burgeoning supply of part-time students.
For example, the University of Maryland's center for part-time studies, the University College, handles more than 11,000 students. School officials expect that number to climb as more programs offering graduate degrees begin.
Johnson said a longstanding tendency for rises in unemployment to match rises in community college enrollment has been bringing more students who have degrees back to get more vocationally oriented courses.
This year, unemployment has topped 10 percent nationally, and students already having bachelor's degrees make up more than 7 percent of community college enrollment, Johnson said. "In the late '60s, if there was even 1 percent, that would be a high figure," he said.
Most of the state's 23 independent schools, however, suffered small drops in enrollment that officials attributed to student aid reductions. Columbia Union, Hood and Mount St. Mary's are down more than 5 percent from last year.
Theological colleges reported slight gains in enrollment, while the state's prominent private liberal arts colleges, Johns Hopkins and St. Johns, had 1 and 5 percent increases, respectively, this fall over a year ago.
Enrollment dropped slightly more than 1 percent, from 37,528 to 37,046, this fall at the University of Maryland's main campus in College Park, where administrators are attempting to shift enrollment to other colleges.