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Community College Enrollment on the Rise

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Enrollment is on the rise at community colleges across the United States.

In many cases state budget cuts have made hiring new faculty next to impossible, causing crowded classes to become the norm. Waiting lists for courses include nearly one student for every two actually enrolled in the course.

Rising Community College Enrollment is a National Trend

Throughout the fall 2009 semester, community colleges across the country had been reporting increased enrollment. The American Association of Community Colleges created a survey to see if these individual schools’ results represented a national trend.

The results of the organization’s survey were published as a report entitled Community College Enrollment Surge: An Analysis of Estimated Fall 2009 Headcount Enrollments at Community Colleges, in December 2009, claiming that high enrollment did in fact seem to be a widespread trend. The survey included data from hundreds of colleges from every region of the country, and the economic recession which began almost two years prior has had a dramatic impact on America’s community colleges.

More Full-Time Students Attending Community Colleges

An article published by Inside Higher Ed immediately following the release of the report explained that head count in credit courses was up 11.4 percent over the last year, and 16.9 percent over two years. Considering that approximately 60 percent of community college students are enrolled part time, one of the most dramatic parts of the new enrollment surge is that it is coming in large part by full-time students.

USA Today reported just days ago that community college students account for almost half of all higher education enrollments. Community colleges have long been celebrated for their smaller class sizes and considerably lower tuition rates, and the American Association of Community Colleges found that over the last two years, the percentage gain in full-time students has been more than twice the rate as for part-time students.

Crowded Community Colleges are Trying to Deal with Enrollment Problems

The rapidly growing enrollment levels have been testing community colleges across the United States in various ways.

  • Turning Students Away. Public colleges in California have been struggling massively due to a statewide budget crisis, and the students are being turned away from community colleges despite open-door policies. For that reason, enrollment is actually down at many state schools in California while the demand to attend is higher than ever.
  • More Adjunct Professors. Community colleges in Nevada are trying to rely on part-time instructors. "We are trying to keep our entire full-time faculty lines already in the budget staffed, and are relying on part-time employees as much as ever to try and squeeze every single class section we can into the schedule,” said Darren Divine, vice president of academic affairs at Southern Nevada.
  • Independent Study Programs. Phillip Bustos, vice president for student services at Central New Mexico Community College in Albuquerque, New Mexico, said that his college is getting some faculty members to work with students for something similar to "independent study.” The school may also have to alter its traditional practice of keeping classes to less than 30 or so students.
  • Late Night Courses. Midnight classes are also gaining popularity at some schools. Clackamas Community College in Oregon began offering welding classes from 10 PM to 2 AM two nights per week in 2009. The classes became so popular that the college expanded them to four nights per week. Bunker Hill Community College in Boston also began offering late-night courses, while Illinois Central Community College has begun promoting “night own classes” which even offer free coffee.

Some Community College Students are Fed Up with the Crowds

While some community college students don’t mind putting up with overcrowded classes, waiting lists, and searching for parking spots on campus, others are taking matters into their own hands—by switching from reasonably-priced community colleges to often-expensive for-profit colleges.

A June 2010 Washington Post piece profiled Joseph Carrillo Jr., a former community college student having trouble getting into crowded classes at American River College, a public school in the Washington area. He couldn’t find a guidance counselor, and he felt lost. Carrillo made the decision to switch to the private University of Phoenix where everything seemed to fell into place for a considerably higher cost.

He was impressed by the ease of course scheduling at his new school and unconcerned about future debt, asking “What good is cheap tuition if classes are so packed you can’t even get in?”

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Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.


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