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Community Colleges Get Boost from Economy

Posted: December 28, 2008
by Charles McMahon

College admission officials from various regional institutions say the economic slump has more students turning toward two-year programs as an affordable way to obtain a post-graduate education.

With the growing cost of college and the current state of the economy, many are rethinking their strategies and looking to get the biggest and most affordable bang for their buck.

Community colleges have seen major increases in admission rates over the past year and have even noticed students are increasing their workloads to save costs.

Bruce Baker, vice president for enrollment, management and student services at Great Bay Community College in Stratham, said his institution has seen a dramatic rise in applications over last year.

Applications received for the spring semester at the community college have increased 130 percent over last years, said Baker.

"Conventional wisdom has been that during economic downturns, prospective students turn more and more to community college because of affordability," Baker said.

Baker contributes the rise of applications to students, and sometimes the students' parents, being more conscious about their money.

With a student population predominantly made up of part-time students, Baker said perhaps the fowl economy is forcing students who previously considered a four year public education to look at programs like the two-year associate degree program at Great Bay Community College.

The cost for an in-state student at the community college is $175 per credit.

Baker said his school has taken steps to lessen the burden of applying by making it free online, rather than charge applicants the normal $10 fee. Since offering the online application option in June, the college has received approximately 90 percent of its applications that way.

Fred Quistgard, director of admission at York County Community College in Wells, Maine, also said applications have risen over last year.

The school, which draws a large portion of its student population from coastal Maine and New Hampshire, has received approximately 35 percent more applications for the spring semester.

Quistgard said part-time students also have increased the amount of credits they're taking.

"Last year the average student was taking seven credits, but now they're getting nine credits," he said.

The cost for in-state students is $82 per credit, while the cost for out-of-state students is $164 per credit.

"It's the evaluation of what's the best bang for their financial buck," said Quistgard. "We're getting a lot that went away to more expensive schools and are now coming back to us to finish and save money."

Attempts to draw in more students at local community colleges across the state have been bolstered by the Legislature and Gov. John Lynch.

In 2007, the Legislature approved, and Lynch signed, a measure to allow the state community college system to govern itself through a board of trustees. Since then, the college system has embarked on an ambitious schedule of name changes, new construction, curriculum additions, and enhanced recruiting efforts.

For the Fall Semester of 2008, enrollment at the seven colleges within the system increased nearly 6 percent over the previous fall, and 70 percent over the past decade.

White Mountains Community College in Berlin saw its enrollment increase 12 percent over last year. At Manchester Community College enrollment increased more than 13 percent over last year.

The System's other schools - New Hampshire Technical Institute in Concord, Lakes Region in Laconia, and Nashua Community College - also reported increases in enrollment over last year.

Guidance counselors from various regional high schools report that more of their students are continuing to apply to college, rather than jump into the workforce.

David Levesque, director of guidance at Laconia High School, said for the past five years or so the number of students looking to further their education has increased steadily.

Traditionally, about 75 percent of the graduating students plan to attend post-secondary institutions, said Levesque.

"There hasn't been a decrease at all," said Levesque. "Students and parents are looking at price closely a little more than they did in the past and our message is to apply to the school and see what happens with financial aid."

Financial struggles have forced students to submit fewer applications, he said.

"We are seeing more kids apply to community colleges," he added.

Levesque said that could be in part because students are still hoping to get their education, but are being conscious of their wallets and are attempting to work while they go to college.

Sally Thorn, director of guidance at Dover High School, said traditionally 70 percent of graduating students have gone on to attend some form of higher education.

"Concerns about financing have been significant for the past several years," Thorn said.

A senior survey revealed finances were their main concern, she said.

Thorn said it has been a trend for students to look to community colleges first rather than jump into a full-time four-year program.

The reasons for that obviously include financial concerns, she said, but sometimes students just aren't ready to move on.

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