As recession drags on, community colleges become an affordable alternative

At $42,000 a year, Ohio Wesleyan University was no longer an option for Jeff Peters when his father lost his job. After just one year at the private school, Peters looked for a college with a lower price tag.

He found it back in Connecticut, at Norwalk Community College not far from his home in Darien. The annual cost: $3,200.

Peters is part of a tide of bargain-minded young students creating an enrollment boom at two-year community colleges in Connecticut, straining the limits of a system once viewed largely as a spot for older students, career switchers, or those not ready for four-year colleges.

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After a year at a private four-year university, Jeff Peters of Darien transferred to Norwalk Community College (Robert A. Frahm)

“The times are so hard, a lot of kids are deciding to come here directly out of high school,” Peters, 21, said as he sat in the library recently on a campus where nearly every classroom seat is filled all day long.

With the economy in a deep slump, enrollment at the state’s two-year colleges shot up 8 percent last fall – a rate four times greater than that at four-year colleges and universities. Some enrollees are older students who are unemployed or looking for job training, but roughly half that increase consists of younger students. Over the past decade, the number of students under 25 has nearly doubled, accounting for virtually all of the growth in enrollment at community colleges.

“More and more Connecticut families – middle income families – have figured out their sons or daughters can go to the local community college at an affordable cost,” said Marc Herzog, chancellor of the state’s 55,000-student community college system.

Community colleges gained national attention last year when President Obama made them the centerpiece of his goal to make the United States the world’s leader by 2020 in the percentage of adults with college degrees.

However, just as the economy is squeezing families, it is squeezing colleges, too. Congress scaled back most of the President’s 10-year, $12 billion plan for community colleges, cutting the proposal to $2 billion. And many states, including Connecticut, face budget deficits that are curbing higher education budgets.

“Our enrollment is up 17 percent the last two years,” Herzog said, “but we have less money today than in 2008.”

Over the past two years, some two-year colleges, under mounting financial pressure, have turned students away, he said. “This is a national tragedy,” Herzog testified earlier this month before a U.S. Senate subcommittee.

In Connecticut and elsewhere, students, especially those who register late, often find courses are filled.

The rising demand is apparent everywhere. At Manchester Community College, commuter students park their cars in every available corner, including the lawn of the campus band shell, said President Gena Glickman.

“Courses are filling like crazy,” she said. “We don’t even have the space to add courses.” At the state’s 12 community colleges, nearly 7,300 students transferred in this year, many from four-year colleges. “There is huge, huge growth in transfer-back students,” Glickman said.

Shane Satchell, a 21-year-old from Windsor, is taking classes at Capital Community College in Hartford after dropping out as a sophomore at the University of Connecticut, where he had planned to major in biomedical engineering.

At UConn, where the average student living on campus will pay about $20,000 this year, he was worried about his mounting student loan debt.

“It didn’t make sense. . . . My dad makes less than $30,000” a year, said Satchell. At Capital, he is thinking about applying to the nursing program, getting an associate degree, and eventually returning to a four-year college.

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Michael Manson, another Capital student, left the University of Hartford because of the cost. “I wasn’t even staying on campus, and I had to pay a lot out of pocket,” said Manson, 19, who lives in Hartford.  He thought about returning to a four-year college, “but after the first semester [at Capital], I decided to stick it out and get an associate degree.”

Many are enrolling at community colleges straight from high school. The number of new full-time college students, most of them under 25, is up 40 percent at the state’s two-year colleges over the past five years and has more than doubled in the past decade.

“Absolutely, we’re seeing more of that,” said Erin Wininger, head of the counseling department at Bristol Eastern High School. Some of the school’s juniors and seniors already are taking courses at nearby Tunxis Community College, she said.

Bristol Eastern senior Christina Manna, 17, plans to enroll at Tunxis. “I’ve been going there the past two years taking math classes.,” she said. “It’s a better transition for going to a four-year college afterward.” And, she added, “It is so much cheaper to take my core classes at Tunxis and getting that out of the way.”

Many others also see community colleges as a first step toward a four-year college.

“We have more students from New Canaan, Greenwich and Darien coming directly from high school,” said Barbara Drotman, dean of institutional advancement at Norwalk Community College. “Two years and an associate degree can get you into the best of colleges,” she said. “Our students have gone to Smith, Mount Holyoke, Columbia, NYU, Yale.”

The state’s community colleges have transfer agreements with UConn, Connecticut State University and several private colleges. Earlier this year, the colleges announced a new agreement with UConn’s business school and agreements allowing nursing graduates to transfer to St. Joseph College, the University of Hartford, Fairfield University and Goodwin College.

But as classrooms fill up, colleges are tightening budgets and cutting back on library hours, tutoring and counseling – the kind of services crucial to keeping students in school, officials say. The latest figures, for example, show one counselor for every 946 students in the state’s community colleges.

Students also are less likely to find full-time faculty members for counseling or advice. Six years ago, the colleges set a goal to bolster the number of full-time faculty members to 65 percent of the teaching staff, but that number dropped to 44 percent this year.

Still, the colleges have a strong pull for students such as Peters, the transfer from Ohio Wesleyan.

“I feel the education I’m getting here is in no way a step down from the education I was getting at Ohio Wesleyan,” he said. “I was very surprised at the level of commitment professors here have to their students.”

Peters plans to return someday to a four-year school, possibly a large state college. But for now, he said, “All the signs point to me being here another year.”