Some are there because of the recession, and others despite it. Regardless, more young Americans than ever are in college — especially community college, according to a new report.
A record high of about 11.5 million Americans age 18 to 24, or nearly 40 percent, attended college in October 2008, according to a study of Census data released Thursday by the Pew Research Center. Virtually all the increase of 300,000 students over the previous year came at two-year schools, while attendance at four-year schools remained flat.
Community colleges almost certainly saw attendance go up at least that much again this year, though final figures are not yet available. The American Association of Community Colleges reports growth rates of 10 percent and higher have been common this fall on many campuses.
Overall college attendance has been going up for about 30 years; what's new is the sharp uptick at community colleges, driven in large part by recessionary bargain hunting and closer ties between two- and four-year colleges that give students more confidence they'll be able to transfer.
"It's not just middle-aged people coming back to school and very poor people any more," said Mike Grace, 24, a student at Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh, N.C., who plans to transfer to nearby North Carolina State next spring. "I'm seeing what I would consider to be relatively rich kids coming to school."
‘Doesn't have the stigma’
As a broader range of traditional-age college students choose a community college, "it doesn't have the stigma it once did," Grace said.
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.
The relative economic advantages of at least starting a degree at a community college have widened as prices at four-year colleges have shot up much faster.
Average tuition and fees at public two-year colleges ran just $2,372 this year, according to a study released last week by the College Board, compared to $7,020 at public four-year colleges and more than $26,000 at private ones. Once government grants and other aid are factored in, community colleges are essentially tuition-free to the average student, though living expenses and books remain.
"People have less money," said Hope Davis, a spokeswoman for the Community College of Baltimore County in Maryland, where enrollment is up about 14 percent this year. "If you can go to community college and pay $2,500 instead of $25,000 and get your general education credits out of the way and then transfer, it makes more sense."
For Grace, Wake Tech is about one-third the price of a public four-year college. By saving money up front, he hopes to stretch out his Montgomery GI Bill benefits long enough to cover a master's degree, too.
Classes are crowded
Wake's enrollment is up 11 percent this year, on top of a 14 percent increase in 2008. Classes are crowded, but rigorous. Grace thinks some are harder than at N.C. State because the community college is determined that its graduates succeed after they transfer. Grace's sister tried to persuade him he'd be missing out on dorm life and other experiences at a commuter college, but he disagreed.
"I've lived in barracks before," said the Afghanistan veteran. "I don't want to party my way through school. I just want to go through school and get my degree."
Richard Fry, the report's author, said another factor behind 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 school.
Being turned away for lack of space
While it's good news more students are enrolled in college, the Census 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. It's impossible to say how many have been turned away for lack of space (California estimates about 200,000 in that state alone).
Baltimore County colleges have turned student lounges into classrooms and asked students to take classes during more unpopular time slots — early mornings and Friday nights, for instance. At least one college, Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, is holding some classes between midnight and 2:30 a.m.
President Barack Obama has made community colleges the centerpiece of his goal for every American to have at least some higher education credential by 2020, and earlier this year proposed spending $12 billion over the next decade to help community colleges graduate an additional 5 million people.
The House responded last month by passing a student aid bill that included about $10 billion in initiatives directly focused on community colleges. The Senate has not yet taken up the proposal.