Posted: September 23, 2009
by Madeline Sims
Enrollment in New Hampshire’s seven community colleges is up 12 percent this fall, an apparent reaction to the current economic climate. Students affected by the downturn - including recent high school graduates seeking an affordable way to continue their education, and older students looking to update their skills in a progressively more competitive job market - are turning to community colleges for help, according to Shannon Reid, director of communications for the Community College System of New Hampshire.
Although the state’s community colleges have seen steady enrollment increases over the past decade — typically between 3 and 5 percent — this year’s enrollment jump was the largest in recent memory, Reid said.
Community college enrollment across the country generally trends opposite to the health of the economy, Reid said. Attending a state university like the University of New Hampshire costs upwards of $10,000 annually for in-state undergraduates and more than $24,000 for out-of-state students, while full-time tuition at New Hampshire community colleges ranges from $4,200 to $5,600 annually.
Many high school students who may have gone directly to four-year schools under different economic circumstances are now beginning their liberal arts studies at more affordable two-year institutions, Reid said.
"Many students are beginning to see community colleges as places to continue their education before transferring to four-year colleges down the road," Reid said.
Such an approach can ease the financial burden on students and their families, said Jan Phelps, director of marketing for Manchester Community College.
“For many students, it just makes a tremendous amount of sense because they can literally save tens of thousands of dollars by starting here or other community colleges in the state,” Phelps said.
Some students who initially began their college careers at state universities have also chosen to switch to community colleges.
"After a semester or two, some students have realized that the cost burden is more than they are willing to bear for four full years, so they have decided to switch directions," Reid said.
The applicant pool and yield this fall at UNH remained relatively stable, and the university did not use a waitlist to meet its target enrollment, according to UNH admissions director Robert McGann.
McGann acknowledged, however, that economic circumstances might have a larger effect on the number of applicants in the coming years.
"I think the economy has played a larger role this year than last year, but I imagine that next year the school, and all schools across the country, will feel an even greater impact," he said. "There's often a delayed effect, and I think some families will be much more cautious next year when it comes to financial commitments they’re willing to make."
Community college officials are confident that they are prepared for the influx of students who otherwise might have gone to state schools, Reid said, emphasizing that many of the seven New Hampshire schools have upgraded their facilities and student services over the past several years.
All of the campuses, though, will need to make adjustments as needed, she added.
Parking has become an issue at several of the colleges, and many students at Manchester Community College have been parking cars on the grass. Manchester Community College has also seen a rise in the average class size, Phelps said.
"Before, most of the liberal arts classes were 10 or 15 [people], but now we might be seeing some large classes with 28 to 30 people," she said.
Students have also been closed out of certain courses, even as new sections have been created, she added.
"Some returning students who were used to wandering in and signing up for the classes they wanted are now finding that it might be more of a challenge to get all their first choices," Phelps said.
The colleges hope to address class size issues by making online courses available, Reid said. Online enrollment has increased along with regular enrollment, and the community colleges as a whole now offer more than 200 online courses.
"It's great because that helps with students who need to access coursework on a nontraditional schedule, and it also helps us increase our capacity to educate the greatest number of students," Reid said.
Community colleges have also recently seen an increase in enrollment by older students, many of whom were hit hard by the economic downturn that swept across the nation over the past year.
"We're seeing a lot of displaced workers who have either lost their jobs or lost hours who are coming here to upgrade their professional skills or redirect their career paths into industries that might be more secure in the future," Reid said.
Many more students are now seeking careers in health, an industry with a "certain degree of job stability," Reid said. The nursing program at New Hampshire community colleges has become increasingly competitive, she said. Technology programs have also seen an increase in demand, Reid said, particularly among adults who see community college as a way to upgrade their skills.
"We've also set up some new programs in advanced manufacturing which are geared for adults and displaced workers," Reid said.
Despite the increased number of adults returning to school, the age of the typical community college student, which has traditionally been older than the average at four-year universities, has declined, Reid said.
“It has been dropping into the low 20s,” she said. “This reflects the fact that more high school seniors and graduates are looking at community colleges as an affordable, practical place to start, given the current economic outlook, before hopefully going on to a four-year school.”
This age drop has changed the overall dynamic on several campuses, as the younger students bring new expectations of what campus life should offer, Phelps said.
"[Manchester Community College] is definitely adapting to this," she said. "These students are expecting events and activities, and they're ready to help organize and participate in them. The atmosphere surrounding student life has really been reenergized, which is a great thing."
With the increased enrollment during the downturn, community colleges have also seen more requests for financial aid.
"Typically, the amount of aid you are eligible for is based on prior year's income," Reid explained. "However, we are able to take into account the loss of employment in the current year and allow eligibility decisions to be based on projected current year income."