Despite a recession that has brought statewide funding cuts across the board, one sector of Maryland’s higher education system is booming.
According to a November 18 report by the Maryland Higher Education Commission, total fall enrollment in colleges throughout the state increased by 5.2 percent since 2008. The increase was driven largely by a spike in community college enrollment that made up more than two-thirds of the total growth.
The number of students enrolled at Maryland’s 16 community colleges jumped to 140,031, a 9.3 percent increase from last fall. By contrast, enrollment went up 3 percent at public four-year colleges and universities and 2 percent at private schools.
“The economic recession is causing people from a number of different directions to head for community colleges,” said Dr. Clay Whitlow, the executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Colleges.
Adults who have had their careers disrupted by the downturn are turning to community colleges for certifications and credentials that can help them find employment or change jobs. Many students just out of high school who may have planned on attending a traditional four-year school are opting to save money by spending their first two years at a community college and then transferring elsewhere to earn a bachelor’s degree.
Hope Davis, a spokeswoman for the Community College of Baltimore County, said that while the economy is certainly a big factor, some of her school’s 14.1 percent growth – the highest in the state – is a result of recruitment and marketing efforts that specifically highlight those transfer opportunities. Students are looking at a choice between paying $2,500 for their first two years at a community college and paying $25,000 for the first two years at a four-year college, said Davis.
Dr. Margaret Taibi, the dean of Student Development Services at Prince George’s Community College, says that it’s difficult to tell just how many students are choosing to go to community college because of the poor economy.
“I can’t give you a number on it,” said Taibi. “But I can tell you that it’s more than I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been here for 20 years.”
Funding typically comes from three different sources, according to Whitlow. The state contributes 25 percent, the counties contribute roughly 33 percent, and the rest comes from student tuition and fees. As both state and county budgets become tighter and revenues dry up, community colleges are feeling the pain.
In August, Gov. Martin O’Malley cut approximately $10.5 million in community college funding from the state budget, a 5 percent reduction for fiscal 2010. Because enrollment is so high, many students are finding it difficult to sign up for the classes they want to take because the schools simply don’t have the capacity to keep up with the demand.
The community colleges were spared in the most recent round of state budget cuts announced last week. Whitlow says he hopes it’s a sign that the state government has recognized the impact that community colleges can have on the economy.
“We have to be willing to accept our fair share of the pain,” said Whitlow. “On the other hand, we also have to be supported, because so many students need our help right now. We’re an important part of the solution to getting people back to work.”