- The Washington Times - Friday, August 22, 2008

RICHMOND | Two-year community colleges are reporting record enrollment as families squeezed by tough economic times are steering their children away from more expensive four-year schools.

While the shift solves one funding problem, it potentially raises another. Community college officials in some states, including Virginia and Texas, are concerned about increasing costs and shortfalls in state budgets, which could limit their ability to handle the anticipated influx of new students.

Preliminary reports from community colleges across the country, which had overall enrollment of 11.5 million last year, show summer enrollments increased, a trend predicted to extend into the fall, said Norma Kent, a spokeswoman for the American Association of Community Colleges.

Miss Kent said the trend is in line with other economic downturns. Community colleges see increased demand for their work-force-training programs from people who have been laid off or are in search of additional skills.

Whitney Daniels, 19, of Mathews, Va., had hoped to attend a four-year state school this fall, but the recent stock market downturn diminished her family’s college fund, making Rappahannock Community College (RCC) a better alternative, at least for the short term.

The Daniels family had $20,000 in a college fund for their daughter, but the account’s value has fallen enough that a four-year school would be out of the question without student loans - an option that was unappealing to her mother, Debbie.

“We’re approaching retirement in the next six to seven years,” Mrs. Daniels said. “I don’t want to get heavily in debt.”

It costs $2,585 in tuition and fees annually for 30 credit hours at RCC, compared with an average of $14,841 for tuition and fees plus room and board for an in-state student at a public four-year school in Virginia.

Nationwide, the average annual cost of attending community college is $2,361, compared with $6,185 in tuition and fees for an in-state public school. Average annual room and board at a public four-year school is $7,404, according to the most recent figures from the College Board, which tracks average tuition costs.

In Virginia, community college officials anticipate more than 160,000 in-state students will enroll in the fall, up from last fall’s enrollment of slightly more than 157,000 students. Two out of every three new undergraduates will enroll in community colleges, said Jeffrey Kraus, a spokesman for the Virginia Community College System.

The bulk of federal higher-education funding goes to four-year schools, yet two-year schools enroll almost half the country’s undergraduates, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. Salaries and infrastructure costs are higher at four-year schools, but community college officials say they’ve long been expected to do more with less.

At least 30 states have budget shortages, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and the rising costs of energy and other operating expenses will likely make education funding tougher.

Community colleges on average get 60 percent of their funding from state and local sources. As a result, if states are having trouble, community college funding could dwindle, Miss Kent said.

Virginia’s General Assembly allocated $396.5 million for the state’s community college system in the fiscal 2009, up just 2 percent from $387.2 million in the current fiscal year. It allocated $24.4 million for financial aid for community college students. But Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, this week warned legislators that worsening state finances require deep budget cuts by early October - including to areas traditionally off-limits.

In Texas, state funding hasn’t kept up with enrollment growth. Community colleges in Texas receive less than 30 percent of their funding from the state, down from 60 percent in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Because two-year schools are intended to be open-access institutions, it’s anathema to turn students away. But “if there’s not enough faculty, not enough courses, we have a de facto enrollment cap,” Miss Kent said.

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