Monday, February 9, 2009

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) | College freshman Elizabeth Hebert‘s choice of a four-year school suddenly got too expensive. George Haseltine already has a business degree, but he concluded after several layoffs that he needed more training to get work.

So, in the middle of this school year, both landed at New Hampshire Technical Institute (NHTI), which like other community colleges across the country has suddenly grown a lot more crowded.

The two-year schools are reporting unprecedented enrollment increases this semester, driven by students from traditional colleges seeking more bang for their buck and by laid-off older workers. But community colleges aren’t exactly cheering in this down economy: Tuition doesn’t come close to covering costs, and the state funds used to make up the difference are evaporating.

Final figures aren’t in for this semester, but a national group representing community colleges says the average increase from spring-to-spring is dramatic, and similar to what New Hampshire is reporting at its seven schools - a range of 4 percent to 19 percent.

The figure is 20 percent in Maine and South Carolina. One school in Idaho has more than twice the number of students this spring over last.

Last fall, Miss Hebert, of Antrim, began her first semester at Eastern Nazarene College in Massachusetts. But as the economy fell, she began rethinking the thousands of dollars in loans she was carrying - at age 18.

“It was the realization of paying $30,000 a year for four years, and then to take that in loans, it was just way too much,” said Miss Hebert, who is now paying $3,000 a semester at NHTI.

Nationwide, the average annual cost of community college is $2,402, compared with $6,585 in tuition and fees at in-state public four-year schools, according to the College Board. Average tuition and fees for private four-year schools: $25,143.

Factoring in financial aid, the College Board estimates that the average net cost at community colleges is only about $100.

“We have seen it even more and more, Mom and Dad saying, ‘Come back home; we can’t afford it,’ ” said Jim McCarthy, admissions director at Pennsylvania’s Northampton Community College, where spring enrollment is 10.4 percent higher than a year ago - and for the first time is higher than it was in the fall semester.

New Hampshire is marketing the transfer trend.

“I was going to a much larger school out of state and paying $45,000 a year to go there,” straight-A business major Elizabeth Leone says in a TV ad. “I am getting a better experience here at NHTI, and it’s more affordable and closer to home.”

Going to a community college doesn’t require giving up on hopes for a bachelor’s degree, since credits often transfer to four-year schools. States including New Hampshire, Maryland and New Jersey have made it easier for students to begin their higher education at a community college and end it at a university.

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