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Community College Enrollment Growth Slows Down

The number of students who enrolled in community college last fall was up 3.2 percent from the previous year—a significant slowdown compared with the 11 percent increase from fall 2008 to fall 2009, according to a new report released by the American Association of Community Colleges.

Community colleges have experienced enrollment increases in eight of the past 10 years and represent 44 percent of all U.S. undergraduates. Community colleges have grown by more than 20 percent over the past three years with 1.4 million more students enrolled in fall 2010 than in fall 2007. The additional 3.2 percent last fall translates into 250,000 new students.

The survey results suggest that enrollment at larger colleges increased less than at smaller institutions. The data also reflect a larger percentage increase in full-time enrollment than in part-time enrollment. Therefore, the increase in classes taken—and demand on space and faculty resources—was greater than for overall enrollment.

The slowdown in enrollment may be driven by state policies, the report suggests. For instance, data from California indicate that overall enrollment there was lower than in the previous fall, and many community colleges in the state have capped enrollment due to drastic cuts in state funding.

Community colleges have been able to meet increased student demand, despite persistent cuts in state and local funding, the survey found. Less than one-third of respondents reported that they were unable to serve all eligible students, with insufficient funding and limited physical capacity cited as the primary reasons.

What all this means for community colleges has yet to be seen.

"Three percent on top of double-digit growth over the past three years still represents a lot of new students," says J. Noah Brown, president and chief operating officer for the Association of Community College Trustees. "Economic conditions are improving, and enrollment will reflect changing economic conditions."

The report is based on 268 responses from AACC-member public community colleges.

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