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The historic urban campus of Fresno City College in California's Central Valley has 3,000 parking spaces for students. The school's enrollment this fall was 25,574.
Do the math.
"We don't call them parking permits anymore," College President Cynthia E. Azari said with a laugh. "We call them 'licenses to hunt.' We're encouraging students to take public transportation, and the buses are packed. We're at 102 percent of capacity."
Like community colleges across the country, Fresno City College is experiencing a huge influx of students as the college vies to help students stay on track to earn degrees or certificates, transfer to a four-year college or pick up new skills for the job market. At the same time, public financial support is dwindling as tax coffers shrink.
The fact that community colleges are teeming with students is old news. It's a product of the economic downturn. But beneath the statistics is a significant trend: more young students, those aged 18 to 24 years old, are attending community colleges than ever before.
According to an analysis of Census Bureau data by the Pew Research Center, college enrollment among 18-to-24 year olds reached a record high of 11.5 million in October 2008. Nearly all of the increase of 300,000 students over 2007 came at community colleges, while attendance at four-year schools remained flat, the analysis found.
"In California, we are seeing a return of the younger student to community college," Azari said. "The California state university system is not accepting transfers this year, and students are staying with us."
Overall college attendance has been on the rise in the country for about 30 years. But the increase in community college enrollment among younger students is a relatively new phenomenon. Last year, nearly 12 percent of all 18- to 24-year-olds, or 3.4 million, were enrolled in community colleges, up from 10.9 percent the year before, according to the Pew analysis.
Much of the increase is being driven by dollars and cents. Tuition and fees at community colleges, while trending upward, have not gone up nearly as fast as those at four-year colleges. According to the College Board, average tuition and fees at public two-year colleges averaged $2,372 this year, compared to $7,020 at public four-year colleges and more than $26,000 a year at private institutions.
Richard Fry, author of the Pew report, said another factor behind the community college growth is the steadily increasing proportion of young adults who have completed high school, which hit a record high of nearly 85 percent last October. That means more students are eligible to pursue higher education, but most of the growth is coming from students whose academic qualifications make them more likely to start at two-year schools.
Still, many high school graduates appear to be making community college their first choice after graduating high school. For example, Northampton Community College, based in Bethlehem, Penn., reached a milestone this fall: for the first time in the school's 42-year history, the number of students enrolled full-time exceeded part-time enrollment.
"There are many things driving enrollment, but most important for us is a positive legacy of 40 years," said college President Arthur L. Scott. "I think people see the value in what we have to offer. Our enrollment is growing partially because of the economy, but it is also growing because the community knows we provide a rich learning environment supported by a very dedicated faculty and staff."
According to a Community College Week analysis, between
2007 and 2008, enrollment at NCC increased from 7,912 to 10,196, a 28.9 percent spike, ranking it the second-fastest growing college with enrollments between 5,000 and 9,999. The college this year is holding classes in rented strip mall store-fronts and church basements.
Indiana's Ivy Tech Community College is another of the country's fastest-growing colleges. The college serves more than 130,000 students at its 23 campuses. In 2008, enrollment at its Central Indiana campus was 22.1 percent more than the year before. Its East Central campus saw a 22.7 percent spike over the same time period.
Ivy Tech is also seeing an increase in the number of younger students. In fall 2007, Ivy Tech enrolled 37,675 students aged 15 to 24. This year, that number had increased to 52,913, according to figures provided by the college. This fall, the college enrolled 25,000 first-time college students.
"We are seeing increases in all categories," said college President Thomas J. Snyder. "I really think that people are beginning to see that traditional jobs that require only a high school education are disappearing. We are finally convincing people that they need education beyond high school."
While it's good news more students are enrolled in college, the figures say nothing about whether overcrowded two-year institutions will succeed in getting students the credentials they seek or helping them transfer to bachelor's degree programs.
Many are bursting at the seams, cutting some courses to meet budgets and holding others late at night, early in the morning or on weekends. It's impossible to say how many have been turned away for lack of space, though California estimates about 200,000 in that state alone. At Fresno City College, about 200 class sections were cut because of financial stress. That's 10 percent of all courses.
Snyder said Ivy Tech, so far, has mostly been able to accommodate the surging numbers. The college is aggressively striving to optimize the use of facilities and staff …