College enrollment declines in Connecticut

Alex Tettey Jr. and his friends face a dilemma common to many students trying to finish college: Should they attend school part-time and work to cover some of their expenses? Should they put off enrolling until they can afford the costs? Or, should they take out thousands of dollars in student loans?

“I was able to gather up enough money working to go to school, but I had to get a job in order to continue my classes,” said Tetty, a student at Manchester and Capitol community colleges.

Some of his friends took another route.

“They take semesters off because they couldn’t afford it,” he added, pointing to one who “had to basically choose between going to school and working.”

Enrollment figures released Thursday by the state show that for the first time since the recession began, fewer students are enrolling in public and private colleges part-time, and full-time enrollment has stagnated for the first time since 2001.

While the nearly 2 percent dip is not unexpected, the executive director of the Office of Higher Education said that part-time enrollment may be linked to changing economic conditions.

“Fewer part-time students may indicate that more adults, who usually take a limited number of courses, are finding jobs as Connecticut’s economy improves. That’s good news for the economy but a challenge for our colleges,” said Executive Director Jane A. Ciarleglio, whose released the annual enrollment report.

(See college-by-college enrollment numbers here.)

Declines in enrollment have led to deficits at the state’s largest public college system, operated by the Board of Regents for Higher Education.

But regardless of the decreases, officials at both the Regents’ system and the University of Connecticut are planning for large increases in student enrollment in the years ahead. UConn’s “Next Generation” plan calls for increasing enrollment by one-third over the next 10 years. A preliminary framework for the Regents’ “Excel CT” plan calls for enrollment to rise by 8,000 students (a 10 percent increase) over the next few years.

The increases, officials say, will come from attracting nontraditional students or pulling in Connecticut residents who now head out of state to college.

While the slow economic recovery may be having an effect on students’ enrollment decisions, it has not curbed rapidly increasing student debt.

The Institute for College Access and Success reports that about 61 percent of students continue to graduate from Connecticut’s colleges each year in debt. The most recent graduating class left with an average student debt of $27,816, which is 25 percent higher than five years ago.

Many analysts and politicians say current debt levels are so alarming that paying back the loans will limit students’ choices of jobs and limit their ability to take on responsibilities such as a mortgage.

President Obama recently proposed a college rating system for students with a goal of making higher education more affordable.

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