State college enrollment up, boosted by two-year schools

By Linda Conner Lambeck
STAFF WRITER, Connecticut Post
Updated: 11/20/2009 01:58:50 PM EST

The economy may still be in the tank, but overall college enrollments around the state managed to rise 3.6 percent this fall, buoyed largely by strong growth at two-year colleges.

Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport is one of four community colleges that charted double-digit enrollment growth from fall 2008 to this year, according to enrollment figures released Friday by the state Department of Higher Education.

This fall, HCC had 5,609 students, 528 more than last year, a 10.4 percent increase. Also marking significant jumps were Manchester, Middlesex and Three Rivers community colleges.

Housatonic Registrar James Connelly said the economy definitely has something to do with the surge. It is far cheaper to attend a community college than a four-year school, while more people are returning to college for retraining after having lost their jobs. Also, HCC has been able to offer more courses simply because it has more space. The school doubled in physical size last year when it opened a second building, Beacon Hall alongside Lafayette Hall.

Another school in the region that recorded a substantial enrollment gain was St. Vincent's College, a small private college in Bridgeport, where enrollment jumped from 427 to 531 students, a 24.4 percent increase.

"There are a lot of people, who are unemployed, going into health care," said Susan Capasso, dean of academic services at St. Vincent's. The two-year college, which specializes in nursing and radiography, is also attracting a lot more students who are older -- the average age is 28 -- and who live in state.

Overall, enrollment at colleges and universities across the state this fall grew by 3.6 percent to 191,227 students, a new record high and the largest annual gain in two decades, according to the preliminary figures from the higher education agency.

Growth at the state's 12 community colleges and five two-year private institutions accounted for 65.4 percent of the annual gain.
Records have been broken eight years in a row as the baby boom of the late 1980s and 1990s finally makes its way to college, swelling the ranks of traditional undergraduate students.

Commissioner of Higher Education Michael P. Meotti expects this year is the tail end of the enrollment peak.

"Demographics show a shrinking pool of high school graduates," said Meotti. The economy, he added, is also having a tremendous impact on higher education. While it's harder for many students to afford private four-year colleges, many adults are returning for degrees or to study for new careers.

Across the state, part-time enrollment climbed 4.9 percent, and full-time enrollment rose 3.0 percent. Undergraduate totals were up 3.9 percent to 155,284 students, and graduate student counts increased 2.4 percent to 35,943.

The University of Bridgeport, which has seen steady growth over the past decade, took a step back this year, with an overall reduction of 4.1 percent to 5,103. The drop is largely attributable to a loss of some 231 graduate students. Many of UB's graduate students come from overseas.

"It's the economy, and we expect that to be temporary," said UB President Neil Salonen. He pointed out that, on the flip side, undergraduate enrollment is up more than 10 percent, and that most of that increase comes from the tri-state area. Some 57 percent of the UB student body is from Connecticut. UB, according to state numbers, has 1,504 full-time and 744 part-time undergraduates.

Fall enrollment at the University of Connecticut this fall grew by 2.6 percent to 29,383 students. At the Connecticut State University system, which includes the Southern, Western, Central and Eastern campuses, enrollment was up 2.4 percent. New records were set at UConn, Eastern and Western, as well as nine of the 12 community colleges.

Private college enrollments, statewide, grew by 2.9 percent. In southwestern Connecticut, Fairfield University lost 1 percent of its enrollment to 5,074 students, while Sacred Heart University in Fairfield grew by 1 percent to 6,023. SHU hit a record for full-time undergraduates with 3,519 students, according to Jim Barquinero, the school's vice president for enrollment planning and student affairs. Yale University in New Haven also reached a new high with 11,593 students, a 1.3 percent increase over last year.

Area college enrollments for fall 2009 and the change from 2008 Yale University: 11,593, up 1.3 percent Fairfield University: 5,074, down 1.1 percent Sacred Heart University: 6,023, up 1.1 percent University of Bridgeport: 5,103, down 4.1 percent St. Vincent's College: 531, up 24.4 percent University of Connecticut: 29,517, up 0.5 percent Southern Connecticut State University: 11,815, up 0.4 percent Western Connecticut State University: 6,617, up 2.4 percent Housatonic Community College: 5,609, 10.4 percent Norwalk Community College: 6,685, 6.7 percent