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Recession Has Its Ups and Downs for 2-Year Colleges

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The recession is proving to be something of a roller-coaster ride for community colleges, a new survey by the American Council on Education suggests.

While the economic downturn has forced legislatures to slash higher-education budgets in states across the country, it has also apparently sparked increased enrollments at the two-year schools.

According to the A.C.E., community- college enrollments rose in 14 of the 15 states surveyed, with most reporting increases of between 3 per. cent and 6 percent. Four-year institutions, in contrast, experienced smaller increases or even slight declines.

At the same time, nearly two-thirds of the four-year schools and almost half of the two-year schools experienced mid-year spending cuts during the 1990-91 budget year, the A.C.E. reported last month.

Several higher-education officials and high-school counselors said last week that the reason community colleges have fared relatively well during the recession is that they have more quickly and adeptly responded to a wide range of student needs.

Frank Burtnett, the executive director of the National Association of College Admission Counselors, said two-year colleges "serve that person who's going to jump in or out and just take one course or two," as well as those who seek a two-year associate's degree or those who hope to transfer to a four-year college.

"The whole idea that you go to college the fall after you graduate from high school and finish in four years is not the standard way for all people any more," Mr. Burtnett added.

Still, officials said last week, one downside to the recession is that, with enrollments up and state aid declining, community colleges-- which traditionally have maintained open-admissions enrollment policies--may be forced to limit access to their programs.

"For the first time in the history of community colleges," said Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the American Association of Community and Junior Colleges, "enrollment caps are being discussed."

Of particular concern to higher-education officials is the negative impact such a change would have on minorities, who, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, made up 23 percent of the student population at two-year colleges in 1988, the most recent statistics available, compared with 16 percent at four-year schools.

"Community colleges in many states are not capable of handling the increased demand," asserted David Merkowitz, the director of public affairs for the A.C.E.

"It's basically first come, first served," Mr. Merkowitz said. "If you're closed out, you're closed out."

A Two-Decade Trend

Of the 15 states surveyed by the A.C.E., Louisiana reported the highest increase in its community-college enrollment--21 percent; Tennessee was second, with 12 percent.

Connecticut was the only state to experience a drop in enrollment at its two-year colleges. College students enrolled in the 15 states included in the survey account for 40 percent of the higher-education population nationwide.

The A.C.E.. found total enrollment in higher education down in 3 of the 15 states, and enrollment in four-year institutions down in 5 states.

According to the N.C.E.S., enrollment at two-year institutions has risen steadily since the early 1970's.

Today, public community-college students account for 38 percent of the total higher-education population, compared with 29 percent in 1972. Noting that the average age of students attending two-year institutions today is 28, Mr. Reinhard of the A.A.C.J.C. said community colleges have sustained enrollment growth even as the number of 18-year olds in the population has declined.

Fitting the Bill

Several officials noted last week that community-college enrollments typically rise during periods of weak economic growth.

Mr. Reinhard attributed the increased interest to the lower tuitions charged by the two-year schools, the overall occupational focus of their curriculum, and the flexible schedules they offer that make it easier for job-changers and others to study part-time. According to the N.C.E.S., 64 percent Of community-college students attend school part-time.

In addition, Mr. Reinhard said, high- school seniors who had intended on entering the work-force immediately may instead opt for a two-year degree program if they have trouble finding an entry-level job.

The relatively inexpensive tuition charged by community colleges may also entice college applicants who feel that financial-aid packages from four- year schools are inadequate, counselors said, adding that attending a junior college can make it easier for students to reduce room- and-board expenses because they can live at home.

"Families may have been thinking that they could afford $20,000 to $25,000 for a year of education," said Jim Mohan, the director of guidance at Hinsdale Central High School in Hinsdale, Ill. They "are certainly taking a harder look at that because they are not as sure of the economy as they were three or four years ago."

Wayne Fowler, a counselor at Millard North High School in Omaha, Neb. agreed, "I have a student more often than not asking if the difference in dollars is really worth it."

'A Good Sales Job'

Several high-school counselors also attributed the increased interest to the development of more formalized credit- and record- transfer systems between two- and four-year institutions.

Other counselors said they had observed community-college recruiters being more attentive to the individual needs of students than those from four-year universities.

"1 see the community college doing a good sales job," said Landra Bailey, the director of guidance at Halls High School in Knoxville, Tenn. "They get right down there and say, This is what we can do for you. This is what you would have to do.'"

Mr. Merkowitz of the A.C.E. also cited the responsiveness of community colleges to local work-force needs as a factor in their continuing popularity.

"We're always changing our computer programs" to meet the needs of local industry, said Suzanne M. Biasi, the coordinator of admission services at the College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn, Ill.

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