Cost-Conscious Students Flock To Community Colleges

Community colleges are reporting skyrocketing enrollment, as students make tough choices in a sputtering economy. Some students are giving up on more expensive four-year schools and doing two years in a community college.

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At community colleges, there's a saying: When the economy goes south, enrollment goes north. That's certainly true now. Workers hit by a tough economy are returning to school. Other students are opting for community colleges instead of the more expensive, four-year schools. NPR's Larry Abramson has the story.

LARRY ABRAMSON: When the students arrive at Montgomery College in Rockville, Maryland they're encouraged to take a class called FirstYear Experience, taught by Professor Denise Simmons Graves. It's her job to help them adjust to college and to make sure they don't go broke paying for it.

Ms. DENISE SIMMONS GRAVES (History and Political Science, Montgomery College, Maryland): Scholarships are money you earn based on academic merit or need. Loans are the devil, seriously.

ABRAMSON: Many of the 20 or so students sitting here have already decided they are not going to rack up massive debts to pay for the school of their choice. Some have already given up their dreams of attending more prestigious schools to come this community college, which serves the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. Erie Calderone(ph) had her sights set on...

Ms. ERIE CALDERONE: University of Maryland in Baltimore County. Also known as UMBC.

ABRAMSON: And it's a pretty a good school.

Ms. CALDERONE: It's a very good school. It's an honor school...

ABRAMSON: Calderone's eyes light up when she talks about how great UMBC is and about the day she got her acceptance letter, but her expression falls when she says she quickly realized it just wouldn't work.

Ms. CALDERONE: It was just out of my league. I couldn't afford it. I could probably afford two weeks there, but I couldn't actually afford to go there for four years.

ABRAMSON: Calderone works for her dad and comes from a tight-knit family. Her relatives were ready to help her out, but her parents' income is starting to shrink as the economy cools.

Ms. CALDERONE: Both of them have full-time jobs, and they're starting to get less hours. And then also, you know, my aunt, she also sometimes helps me financially, but at her job they were giving her two days a week.

ABRAMSON: Calderone says she was hugely disappointed when she learned she'd have to go to a community college but she says she's over that. Now that she's here, she's very pleased with the classes at Montgomery College, known as one of the better two-year schools in the country.

There are lots of reasons why the halls of this and other community colleges are busier more than usual. Melissa Gregory, head of financial aid in Montgomery College, says many families are finding that the tight credit market is driving them toward cheaper choices.

Ms. MELISSA GREGORY (Head, Financial Aid, Montgomery College): In the past, it might have been a home equity loan, home equity line of credit. I heard over and over again, especially at financial aid workshops I do, people saying, I don't have any equity any more. They cut off my line of credit.

ABRAMSON: But the popularity of community colleges is also coming from another direction.

Unidentified Woman: That's the head, very cute baby.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ABRAMSON: At Montgomery Colleges, Takoma Park campus, a student practices giving a sonogram. A local medical student has generously donated her pregnant belly and her baby so that students have a real model to practice on. You probably didn't know that there's a big shortage of sonographers, but there is, and Montgomery College is trying to fill that need. Students are also signing up in droves to study everything from nursing to radiology. The health-care industry continues to offer good wages and steady employment, according to Dr. Linda Zanin, who runs the sonography program here.

Dr. LINDA ZANIN (Director, Diagnostic Medical Sonography Program, Montgomery College): And I know we've had a couple airlines stewardesses who have been laid off and have joined our program. And we also have a lot of women who have been at home for a while and their careers - they feel it kind of changed now, and they're coming back to work.

ABRAMSON: This sudden popularity is a mixed blessing to community college leaders. James Jacobs, head of Macomb Community College in Michigan, says he has had to expand nursing class, which cost more to offer, but state funding remains flat.

Mr. JAMES JACOBS (Head, Macomb Community College): We're in a sense forced to spend more money on high-cost occupational programs because that's where the demand is.

ABRAMSON: The rush to community colleges puts even more pressure on these two-year schools to make sure that students actually get a degree. Community college students are more likely than their four-year counterparts to drop out before they finish. Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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