With economy down, part-time college enrollment rises

It’s a dilemma Corey Schmitt has seen dozens of students face during the three years he’s worked at the University of Connecticut’s financial aid office: either go to school full-time and take out thousands of dollars in loans, or attend part-time and work to pay some of the expenses on the way.

“Students don’t want to bury themselves in debt, so many of them decided to just go part-time,” Schmitt said, who graduated earlier this year and is saving up now so he can afford his living expenses when he goes to graduate school. “The last thing I want to do is have to dig myself out of an insane amount of debt when I graduate.”


Enrollment numbers show that since the recession began more and more students are deciding to go the part-time route, while full-time enrollment actually declined this year.

“The bad economy is making it much more difficult for students to be able to afford to go to school full time,” said Jane Ciarleglio, executive director of the Office of Financial and Academic Affairs for Higher Education.

The annual enrollment numbers released this week by OFAAHE suggest the steady increases in full-time enrollment the state’s public and independent colleges have experienced in recent years are likely gone until the economy improves.

“I don’t think we should expect full-time enrollment to increase,” Ciarleglio said.

Meanwhile, she expects part-time enrollment to continue to climb.

“The size of debt a student wants to take on is certainly playing into what a family decides to do. People are afraid right now and are not as secure as they have been to take on too much extra debt,” she said.

While the recession may be impacting enrollment decisions, it has not curbed rapidly increasing student debt. The Institute for College Access and Success reports that about 60 percent of students continue to graduate from Connecticut’s colleges each year in debt. The most recent graduating class left with an average debt of $25,360, which is a 25 percent increase from five years earlier.

Many analysts and politicians say that current debt levels are truly alarming, arguing that these loans will limit students’ choices of jobs and make them unable to take on other responsibilities such as a mortgage.

President Obama is honing in on this issue, and has begun a “Know Before You Owe” initiative for college students to better understand the debt they are getting themselves into and laying out a more realistic repayment schedule.

For Schmitt, he said he may have known exactly what he was doing when he decided to borrow money with double-digit interest rates to pay for his full-time education, but this time he is trying to avoid making the same mistake.

“I am building a nest egg now so I don’t have to borrow anywhere near as much,” he said. He intends to go to school full-time until that money runs out, and then he will be faced with a familiar dilemma: go to school part time like many students he once counseled in the financial aid office to do or bury himself in debt.