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Tough economy tied to rise in enrollment at area colleges

October 16, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- Enrollment at area community colleges is rising steeply as economic conditions make the institutions appealing to both traditional students and career changers, local college officials said.

In tough times, it's smarter for many high school graduates to stay close to home for a year or two before going to a four-year college, said Jennifer Haughie, director of admissions, records and registration at Hagerstown Community College.

At the same time, many job seekers want training to gain an edge in a competitive job market, she said.

HCC has a record 4,585 students enrolled this fall -- nearly 500 more than last fall, a 12 percent increase, Haughie said.

Frederick Community College has 6,233 students registered for credit classes this fall, up almost 500 students, or about 8 percent, from last fall, spokesman Mike Pritchard said.

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The trend has also affected Kaplan University's Hagerstown and Frederick campuses. Together, they have 1,124 students enrolled this fall, about 250 students more than last fall, a 29 percent increase, Kaplan spokeswoman Abigail Hunt said.

School officials said the economy has played a large role in attracting more students.

With the local unemployment rate hovering at around 10 percent -- Washington County's rate in August was 9.9 percent -- many people who are out of work are training for a new career, Haughie said. Others who are still employed are seeking extra training to help retain their jobs, she said.

With their open enrollment policies, flexible hours and career-focused programs, community colleges often are a top choice for career-changers and other nontraditional students, Haughie said.

HCC's enrollment has been especially strong in short-term health care certification programs, such as those for certified nursing assistants and phlebotomy certification, because health care is one of the strongest areas for jobs right now, she said.

The economy also is influencing many traditional-aged college students to start at community colleges, where tuition is less expensive and they can live at home, before transferring to four-year schools, Haughie and Pritchard said. Both schools said their proportion of traditional-aged students is rising steeply.

Other factors influencing enrollment include President Obama's championing of community colleges and his call for every American to commit to at least one year of higher education or career training, as well as a changing perception of community colleges, officials said.

"I think the general perception of community college as a whole, over the past several years, has really been changing," Haughie said. "People are really seeing community colleges more in line with what they would see at a university."

Hunt said the same factors that make community colleges increasingly attractive apply to Kaplan University, a private nontraditional school offering career-focused programs tailored to local employment needs.

When Kaplan's Hagerstown and Frederick campuses became part of Kaplan University this summer, new online courses became available through those campuses, she said.

School officials said they've made several changes to accommodate the increased enrollment.

HCC has scheduled creatively -- such as more Friday classes -- to maximize classroom space, Haughie said. Increased Web-based classes and classroom-online hybrid classes have helped, she said.

FCC has scheduled 6:30 a.m. classes and opened a grassy area for parking to relieve its overflowing parking lots, Pritchard said.

HCC President Guy Altieri said the college's ability to hire more teachers is limited by tight state and county funding. The college has had to rely more on part-time faculty for additional course sections.

"We are doing our best to accommodate increased numbers of students at a time when the budget is being cut," Altieri said in a press release. "However, it's imperative that state lawmakers give careful consideration when they review the budgets of community colleges, which play a critical role in the economic recovery efforts."

Growth at other Tri-State postsecondary institutions has been slower.

Enrollment at Penn State's Mont Alto campus grew about 1.4 percent this fall and Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, W.Va., saw an increase of about 1.7 percent in for-credit enrollment, officials with those schools said.

The University System of Maryland at Hagerstown has 454 students enrolled for the fall, one fewer than last fall, spokeswoman Erin Harman said. However, Harman said she expects an increase in the spring semester, when a doctorate in education and a bachelor's degree in psychology are introduced.

Enrollment up



Fall 2009 enrollment (compared to last fall):

Hagerstown Community College -- 4,585 (up 12 percent)

Kaplan University (the Hagerstown and Frederick, Md., campuses combined) -- 1,124 (up 29 percent)

University System of Maryland at Hagerstown -- 454 (one student fewer than last fall)

Frederick Community College -- 6,233 (up 8.4 percent)

Penn State Mont Alto -- 1,242 (up 1.4 percent)

Shepherd University -- 4,256 (up 1.7 percent)

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