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Tsunami of Enrollment at Community Colleges

There's a buzz around community colleges these days. And it's not just because Chevy Chase is starring in the NBC sitcom, "Community," about the quirky life of misfits on a community college campus.

The recession has fueled a surge in enrollment on community college campuses. Nationally, the number of students enrolled in credit-bearing courses has increased 17 percent from 2007 to 2009, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. And classrooms aren't just filled with laid-off workers retooling for a new career. One of the fastest growing populations in community colleges are first-time, full-time freshmen.

Do the math, and it's easy to see why. Average annual tuition and fees at a public community college is $2,361 compared with $6,185 for a four-year public institution. Plus few students would venture afar to attend a community college so there's the savings of living at home over shelling out thousands for room and board on campus.

The Washington Post captured the trend in a recent story, "The Alternative: Younger Students Give Community Colleges a Second Look." In California, students who are cut out of classes in the California State University System because of budget reductions are turning to community colleges.

Community colleges are becoming institutions of "first choice" for a growing number of college-bound students, says J. Noah Brown, president and chief executive officer of the Association of Community College Trustees.

"We have an opportunity to increase our visibility and importance to more mainstream college students than at any other time in our history," says Brown. "This is an exciting prospect for community colleges—one which will further cement our position as vitally important postsecondary institutions."

But it's a tough job in lean times. Community colleges receive a high proportion of their funding from state and local sources, so they are really feeling the effects of the slump in the state and local economies. Double-digit enrollment increases coupled with state and local funding cuts create a "double whammy" that has put immense pressures on community college boards and presidents, says Brown.

"The goal to remain fully accessible to the widest array of students is being severely challenged as never before," he says. "Some colleges are having to curtail course offerings or programs; others are finding critical programs like nursing oversubscribed. The number of colleges running night and weekend courses is increasing substantially, as community colleges struggle with maintaining an open door in the wake of a tsunami of new students."

It will be interesting to see how community colleges will cope and if the promised billions of dollars in federal American Graduation Initiative money will materialize. During their moment in the sun, will community colleges be able to deliver? Stay tuned.

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