First-time undergraduates looking to avoid high tuition costs and older workers trying to re-tool their skills in a tough economy are flooding Maryland's community colleges for the "distinct value" of an associate's degree, the institutions' leaders say.
At the Community College of Baltimore County there has been a dramatic increase in enrollment in both for both credit and non-credit students during the last four years. In 2008, there were 20,673 students enrolled in credit courses, and by 2011 that number had jumped to 26,935, a rise of about 30 percent.
“We’ve had an incredible spike in enrollment in the last four years,” said the college's president, Dr. Sandra Kurtinitis. “We were already a big institution but we have grown sizably bigger. We know part of that is the economy.”
Almost every community college in the state has seen enrollment go up, said Robert Lynch, director of institutional research at Montgomery College.
“Some of that is attributable to students coming back for training and programs that would enable them to fight the job market with a little more ammunition,” he said.
According to Lynch, the biggest spike in enrollment at Montgomery College occurred between 2008-2009. In the fall of 2009, there were 26,147 students enrolled in fall credit programs, up from 24,452 in 2008, an increase of 7 percent. The enrollment of full-time students at the school has also been steadily on the rise.
Schools have had to take special measures to accommodate the growth.
In addition to re-purposing 52 multi-use rooms into classrooms, the CCBC staff, for example, have made class schedules more flexible to accommodate all types of students. The school also is molding its instruction to fit students' high-tech lives by offering more hybrid courses that include online teaching.
“We’ve done everything we can think of to really absorb the enrollment,” Kurtinitis said.
She adds that in the times of a tough economy, the two-year associate's degree that is offered at the community college level becomes that more valuable.
“We know there is a distinct value in the associates degree,” Kurtinitis added. “If [students] do not finish up a four-year degree, at least they’ll have an associate's degree; it’s a pretty important opportunity.”
At Carroll Community College, the fluctuation of the county’s school graduation class size in addition to the state of the economy has had an impact on enrollment.
“We’re generally trending upward; until this fall we’ve experienced an increase every year since 2006,” said Jim Ball, the school’s vice president of academic and student affairs.
Ball said that since the graduating class was smaller this year, there was a slight decrease in enrollment figures as a result. Yet he called this year atypical.
“We like to think our reputation is pretty strong,” Ball added. “The price of higher education is increasing…Universities have gotten to the point where the price points are so high that people are seeking an alternative.”
According to a CNN Money article, for the school year 2010-11, in-state tuition and fees at public four-year colleges and universities rose to $7,605, up 7.9 percent from a year ago. At private four-year institutions, the average cost rose 4.5 percent to $27,293.
Ball said that one of the fastest growing groups on campus is the 30 to 39-year-old population.
“Anecdotally many students are coming back who are changing careers or who were laid off and are looking to re-tool,” he explained. “We are continuing to see that trend—although students are taking fewer credit hours overall—that also might be a function of the economy.”
At Prince George’s Community College, according to Mona Rock, the coordinator of public relations, the fall, for-credit enrollment for 2008 was 12,110, while for 2009 that number jumped to 13,685. Then in 2010 that number hit 14,814.
Meanwhile, Howard Community College calls itself one of the fastest growing community colleges in Maryland.
“For fall 2011, both headcount and full-time equivalent (FTE) enrollment are up 5 percent from this time last year,” stated Nancy Gainer, HCC’s spokesperson. “This is the first fall term in the college’s history that HCC has surpassed enrolling over 10,000 credit students. Previous fall semesters showed steadily increasing credit enrollment.”
She said the median age of enrollment is 22.
“Money Magazine featured HCC in its March 2011 cover story as an affordable college where families are sending their children to receive a quality education, while saving thousands of dollars,” Gainer wrote.