- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 15, 2004

MIDLOTHIAN, Va. — Matthew Starnowski hadn’t planned to attend college because it was unaffordable and he thought he could get by without a degree.

“You pay so much for tuition, and a lot of people have families who saved up for college but I’m not one of those,” Mr. Starnowski said. “I slacked off in high school. I didn’t have a scholarship and would have these outrageous loans.”

But Mr. Starnowski, 19, had a sudden realization two weeks before graduating from high school a year ago: “I was like, what was I going to do? I worked at a gas station. I didn’t see a future in that.”

He decided to attend John Tyler Community College in suburban Richmond, living at his mother’s Powhatan home and working several jobs to save money while he figured out what he wanted to study. He hopes to transfer to Longwood University or the College of William and Mary, and will apply to those schools in the fall.

Mr. Starnowski is among an increasing number of students enrolling in two-year schools nationwide because of the rising price of four-year colleges and an increase in the number of college-bound high-school students. Many states are struggling to keep up with the demand, turning away thousands of prospective students.

In Virginia, about 229,000 students were enrolled in credit courses in the state’s two-year schools last year, compared with 212,000 in the 1993-94 school year, according to the Virginia Community College System. That’s the equivalent of 92,355 full-time students, up 18 percent from 75,706 a decade ago — and officials expect steady enrollment growth through at least 2010.

An increasing number of people who plan to seek a bachelor’s degree are starting at community colleges because they’re much less expensive than four-year schools, said Glenn DuBois, chancellor of the Virginia Community College System.

“The tuition gap [between two-year and four-year institutions] is becoming wider,” Mr. DuBois said. “That’s driving the market for community colleges.”

For example, the average in-state, full-time tuition and mandatory fees at Virginia’s public four-year schools for 2004-05 is $5,612, according to the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia. A year of community college costs $2,006 for a full-time student.

The American Association of Community Colleges says an estimated 6.5 million students attended two-year institutions full time (12 or more credit hours per semester) in 2002 and 4 million attended part time, accounting for about half of the U.S. postsecondary student population, said Norma G. Kent, a spokeswoman for the association.

“All the factors that have brought unprecedented growth at community colleges are only going to continue,” Miss Kent said.

More children of baby boomers attending college, continuing tuition increases and workers seeking additional training all contribute to the boom, she said.

In Virginia, demand is particularly strong in high-population areas such as Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads. At Tidewater Community College (TCC), enrollment is up as is the percentage of those ultimately seeking four-year degrees.

Enrollment has grown steadily over five years to about 35,000, and last year, TCC had to turn away 7,000 potential students because of a lack of space or unavailable classes, school President Debbie DiCroce said.

“The reality is that that’s the tip of the iceberg,” she said.

As part of an overall attempt to make up for underfunding in higher education, the General Assembly last spring allocated $22 million in new money to community colleges to help cover the system’s $120 million shortfall in the annual operating budget, Miss DiCroce said.

The shortfall occurred as a result of growing enrollment, shrinking state funding and tuition freezes or rollbacks, said Karen Petersen, executive vice chancellor of Virginia’s community colleges.

“We continued to keep our doors open,” even though schools were unable to hire new faculty, add classes or work on maintenance or construction projects, Miss Petersen said.

Miss Petersen says the system now expects to hire more than 100 full-time faculty, as well as additional adjuncts, and plans to add to counseling and support staffs to increase student retention and graduation rates.

Other states are seeing the boom and boosting funding to their community colleges.

In California, a $105 billion budget signed last month increases funding to the community colleges by 7 percent, for a total of nearly $5.4 billion, and will allow the schools to enroll about 40,000 more students. This past year, the two-year schools had to turn away 175,000 because of a lack of space.

Florida’s community colleges had to turn away an estimated 22,000 students last fall because classes were filled or unavailable, said David Armstrong, chancellor of the state’s community college system. But the number is not expected to be as high this year because the legislature appropriated nearly $1 billion for community colleges in the state’s latest budget, a nearly 8 percent increase in operating funds.

Despite the challenges posed by increased demand, officials hope two-year colleges can continue to raise the expectations of students who wouldn’t necessarily consider getting any postsecondary education.

“We provide first-time opportunities to students who come from families who have never gone to college, minority, and low-income students,” said Mr. Armstrong, Florida’s chancellor. “The four-year degree is the doorway to becoming America’s middle class and upper-middle class.”

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