The Hour, 11−22−2008

Smaller colleges showing larger enrollment

Statewide, students tending to choose community colleges due to rising costs

By JILL BODACH

Hour Staff Writer

The old adage goes that you get what you pay for, but the days of community colleges taking a backseat to higher−priced universities are becoming a thing of the past.

Community college presidents say their institutions are not only providing more bang for their student's buck, but enrollments are setting records.

Across the state, community colleges are anticipating an influx of students seeking a college education but unable to afford the rising cost of four−year institutions.

"From last year we are up 3.3 percent and 2007 was up four percent from 2006," said David Levinson, president of Norwalk Community College. "We've been increasing our head count each year to the point where we have a record head count at the college," said David Levinson, president of Norwalk Community College.

Levinson said he expects similar growth in the future.

"We expect to continue to see full−time students coming straight out of high school because that number has already increased by over 8 percent," Levinson said. "We are finding that more and more students are coming to us full−time after graduation."

Anson C. Smith, public relations coordinator for Housatonic Community College, described a similar scenario at the Bridgeport−based college.

"Enrollment is up dramatically, and what you're going to see is that when the economy worsens, enrollment at community colleges will go up," Smith said. "We set a new enrollment record this fall by registering 5,081 students. That's a 14 percent over fall of 2007," Smith said.

Gateway Community College in New Haven is also experiencing rapid growth.

"Gateway has experienced an enrollment increase of about 90 percent over the past nine years, in credit and noncredit courses," said Dr. Dorsey L. Kendrick.

A major reason for the increase is cost.

According to the College Board's Trends in College Pricing, the 2007−08 average total costs, including tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, transportation and other expenses, were $13,126 for students attending two−year public colleges, $17,336 for students attending four−year public colleges and universities, and $35,374 for students at four−year private colleges and universities. Out of state students attending public colleges and universities pay an average total cost of $27,791.

"If you look at our tuition it's less than one−third of the University of Connecticut's tuition and less than one−half the tuition of the branches of Connecticut State University System," Levinson said. "So in terms of cost, we have an advantage, but we also have a high quality product to offer."

Most community colleges have agreements with four−year institutions that allow a near seamless transition to the these institutions after the two−year course of study at the community college is complete.

"While the economy is definitely a factor, we are also seeing an expanding realization that community colleges offer excellent higher education transfer programs, like our guaranteed admission programs to UConn and the State and private universities, as well as vocational training," Kendrick said.

In addition to traditional college students, many people are seeking workforce education at community colleges.

"We are experiencing more and more people coming to us because they have lost their jobs and are trying to improve their education on a credit and noncredit basis in courses like Microsoft certification," Levinson said.

"More specialized skill−level programs will increase as well."

Anita Gliniecki, president of Housatonic Community College, said her staff is working with businesses in the community to ensure that HCC is offering the training they need in employees.

"We're trying to work closely with economic agencies and employers to make sure we're offering what they need," Gliniecki said. "As we hear of new types of businesses or industries, we try to determine what the training needs are."

With the positives that increased enrollment bring, there are also challenges for some of the community colleges that rely on state funding to expand and continue operations.

"We are under a hiring freeze for full−time faculty. We can hire adjunct and part−time as long as we cover costs, so we have some flexibility," Levinson said. "Our challenge is to have a good balance of full and part−time folks, full−time folks provide academic advisement, adjunct bring a wealth of knowledge, are dedicated and are excellent teachers as well. Continue hiring part−time."

Jill Bodach is a features and general assignment reporter. She may be reached at (203) 354−1046 or jbodach@thehour.com.