A growth spurt in community college enrollment during the recession has all but ended, with numbers declining or leveling off this year, according to state officials.
Three years ago, two-year institutions saw an enrollment boon at the height of the recession. Community colleges were seen as a cost-effective alternative to pricier four-year schools, and also attracted adults seeking new skill sets in the changing job market.
But as the economy has improved, fewer people are enrolling in community colleges. Other factors include changes in federal student aid as well as a shrinking pool of high school graduates, said Andrew Nichols, director for research and policy analysis for the Maryland Higher Education Commission.
During the 2009-2010 academic year, the state's 16 community colleges saw an overall enrollment increase of 5 percent, based on head counts. But last year enrollment dropped 2.5 percent, the first such decline in more than a decade.
Several community colleges say they are still seeing lower enrollments. Many prefer using full-time equivalent counts — a measure that includes both full- and part-time students divided by a full-time course load.
By that measure, Anne Arundel Community College expects to see a 9 percent decrease this fall, according to President Dawn Lindsay. At the height of the recession three years ago, the community college saw an 11 percent increase in full-time equivalent students.
Kristen Cranford, a creative writing student entering her third year at AACC, said the decline is evident.
"The time it hits me that AACC enrollment is down is when I have classes canceled because of the lack of students," said Cranford, 22. "My freshman year I had a music class canceled three days before the beginning of semester, and this semester I had to cross my fingers a class I need for my degree would even run."
While she defends the community college as a great school with a caring, attentive staff, she said people in her circle have left the school because of transportation issues or scheduling conflicts. Some classes are only offered during the day, which can be difficult for students who work, like Cranford.
Melissa Beardmore, AACC vice president of learning resources management, said that while public transportation is available on the Arnold campus, countywide public transportation can be a problem. She also said course offerings are tied to enrollment.
"It's a goal of ours and it's a mission mandate to be fiscal stewards of taxpayer money and student tuition and fees," she said. "That may require canceling classes at times for low enrollment. On the flip side, we also add classes if there is student demand."
Lindsay attributes AACC's dip in enrollment to such factors as the improving economy. "When the economy goes south, people come back to school," she said.
She said another factor may be health care reform. Some students enrolled to be able to continue under their parent's health care plans, but under the Affordable Health Care Act, children can stay on those plans much longer.
At Baltimore City Community College, last year's enrollment dropped 22.7 percent from the previous year. Officials say that was due to several factors, including the school being placed on probation by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education because of inadequate standards to measure student performance.
Carolyn Hull Anderson, named interim BCCC president this year, said enrollment is expected to hold steady this year.
"We are hopeful that the college has turned the corner after addressing multiple challenges that contributed to last year's enrollment decline," Anderson said.
One of the school's locations in the downtown harbor area is closed, surrounded by fence. At the main campus, on Liberty Heights Avenue, a handful of students registered for classes or shopped in the bookstore Friday afternoon.
Keon Jeter and Dayquan Nichols, both 18, sat outside the building, waiting for their shared ride. This will be their first year in college. Best friends since their 10th grade year at The Augusta Fells Savage Institute of Visual Arts, they finish each other's sentences and both plan to study fashion design.
"I'm prepared, I'm ready to do it," Jeter said, as Nichols nodded beside him.
Some local community colleges have been to largely maintain larger student bodies after years of enrollment growth.