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Whether it's the economy, new academic programs or better recruiting, community colleges are seeing an enrollment boom. While enrollment has been growing steadily at many two-year institutions, this fall appears likely to set records for many of these colleges. As a result, some community colleges are exploring innovative ways to serve their growing student bodies, make better use of facilities and attract new professors.

From 2000 to 2006, there was a 10 percent growth in overall enrollment at two-year institutions, according to the most recent figures from the Department of Education. During the 2006-7 academic year, 6.2 million students were enrolled in the country’s 1,045 community colleges, 35 percent of all postsecondary pupils that year, according to a new National Center for Education Statistics study. Though full national figures for the 2007-8 academic year are not yet available and most colleges only have estimates for their enrollments this fall, many colleges are projecting increases of around 10 percent over last fall.

Of the 64 two- and four-year institutions in the State University of New York system, Onondaga Community College, in Syracuse, was the fastest growing in 2006 and 2007. Though Onondaga still has another week of registration, Kris Duffy, its associate vice president for enrollment services, said early estimates indicate the college will enroll 8 to 10 percent more students than last year. By welcoming about 400 more students, she added, the college would raise its overall enrollment to nearly 12,000.

As Onondaga's enrollment has grown, Duffy said, its student population has also gotten younger. There has been an especially marked increase in the number of students looking to transfer to a four-year institution. She noted that 70 percent of the college’s students are enrolled in some sort of transfer preparation program. One reason for Onandaga's greater appeal to more traditional-age college students is its residence halls, which opened in 2006. Though the 580 students currently boarding there represent a small percentage of the institution's overall enrollment, Duffy said the introduction of student housing has improved campus life for all students. This has, she said, boosted prospective student interest in the college. Whereas most community colleges enroll a greater number of part-time than full-time students, she noted that Onandaga now enrolls more full-time students.

Planning for future growth, Duffy said, the college will conduct a feasibility study to consider the possibility of building additional student housing, as there is now a waiting list.

“That’s the arts and science of enrollment, you can’t predict how the economy will affect enrollment,” Duffy said. “We have people tell us, whether it’s students or parents, that this is the best kept secret in education. They say we can prepare students just as well as anyone else and respond to the needs of our community first.”

Affordability especially has attracted more students to Kennebec Valley Community College, in Fairfield, Me. The Maine Community College System has the lowest tuition rate in the state, said Barbara Woodlee, the college’s president, at $3,766 last year. Though it, too, does not have official numbers for the fall, the institution expects a significant boost in enrollment. Kathy Moore, former dean of students, said it anticipates an enrollment increase of at least 9 percent over last year.

Besides low tuition, Woodlee said, the state’s 2003 conversion of its technical colleges into comprehensive community colleges has also attracted more students to her institution. The college has seen an 18 percent increase in applications this year, she added, and those to health-care fields have grown the most. The appeal of employment in these fields has attracted so many students to Kennebec that it has been a challenge for the institution to find enough qualified full-time faculty members to instruct the allied health courses.

The recent community college growth spurt is not restricted to the developing and rural areas. Some of the county’s largest two-year institutions are also enrolling more students than ever. Palm Beach Community College, in Lake Worth, Fla., is experiencing a sharp enrollment growth. The three-campus college of more than 47,000 students is anticipating a 16 percent increase in enrollment this fall, according to Grace Truman, its spokeswoman. Additionally, she noted that the college registered 11 percent more students this summer term than last.

“Our enrollment growth strongly correlates to downturns in the economy,” Truman wrote in an e-mail. “Locally, we have had significant slumps and layoffs, particularly in the housing and construction related industries. Our housing, food and gasoline costs have risen sharply in the same time period.”

She added that the college is enrolling more recent high school graduates than in years past; these students are finding it more difficult to get into and pay for Florida's four-year public institutions. These students, she noted, view community college as way to save money before they transfer to continue their higher education.

Even with the recent growth, the institution is dedicated to small class sizes. Truman noted that an average class contains 23 students. As a result, she added, the college must have more class meetings and is always seeking more adjunct faculty to fulfill this demand. The search for these part-time instructors is a challenge for the college, Truman noted, as they must have the same credentials as its full-time faculty members.

Some community colleges have had to overcome significant difficulties in recent years just to keep their doors open. Now, some of these same institutions are experiencing similar unprecedented growth. Pearl River Community College in Poplarville, Miss., has enrolled more students for this fall than at any time in its 100-year history. William Lewis, the college’s president, said that its enrollment has grown by 6 percent or 254 students and now stands at 4,521. He added there is a long waiting list for on-campus housing at the college, noting that it currently houses more than 800 students. If gas prices and other cost-of-living expense continue to rise, Lewis said he expects more students to take an interest in both the college and living on campus.

As the college is nearing capacity at all three of its campuses, Lewis noted that it has had to engage in some unique scheduling to accommodate the recent influx of students. Traditional classes two or three days a week, weekend classes, and online courses are all options for students at Pearl River. In addition to careful scheduling, the college has plans to expand its campuses in the future.

The institution, however, is still recovering from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Lewis said Pearl River was the most heavily damaged community college in Mississippi. He added that, three years later, the college still does not have an insurance settlement for $40 to $50 million of the damage it sustained. Years after the hurricane, the college's facilities may still need some work, but its enrollment is stronger than ever. Immediately after Katrina, Lewis said, the college lost about 1,000 students, 25 percent of its enrollment. Last year, he noted, the college's student body finally returned to its pre-Katrina size.

“We were able to come back quickly,” Lewis said, noting the institution’s significant enrollment increase this year. “We’re really feeling good about things. People all over the country are realizing the value of community colleges."

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