After grilling burgers and frying potatoes at fast-food restaurants, Durran Pelt knew he wanted something more. So he enrolled last spring at Anne Arundel Community College as a culinary arts student. Now he's learning to bake souffles and other fancy desserts, and thinking about a career as a chef.
"I wanted to do it when I was 18, but I let my mom talk me out of it," Pelt said of his decision to enroll.
Returning students such as Pelt have helped drive up enrollment at the institution - named Community College of the Year in 2001 by the National Alliance of Business - to its highest level ever.
More than 57,000 students took at least one class at the college during the 2001-2002 academic year, setting an attendance record for the second year in a row. Of those, nearly 12,700 were taking courses for college credit.
This year could be another record. Preliminary numbers for this fall indicate nearly 9 percent more students have enrolled in courses for college credit compared with last year, said Fran Turcott, a college spokeswoman.
Final enrollment numbers will not be available until next month, she said.
The college served roughly 52,000 students during the 2000-2001 academic year, compared with about 42,500 students in 1997.
These numbers reflect a statewide trend. Enrollment at community colleges and universities increased 9 percent last year, said John Sabatini, assistant secretary for planning and academic affairs at the Maryland Higher Education Commission.
The sluggish economy is one factor, he said. "When the economy is faltering like this, students return to higher education," he said.
Easier Web site and telephone registration also has helped increase Anne Arundel's enrollment, said Leonard J. Mancini, Anne Arundel's dean of student services.
And more students are attending the community college right after high school, Turcott said.
John Lucy graduated from Severna Park High School last spring. He said he enrolled at Anne Arundel Community College this fall because he thought it would help him get into a better four-year school in 2003. Many of his high school classmates also headed to the main campus in Arnold, he said.
"This way I can live at home while getting my freshman courses out of the way," Lucy said.
Pelt compares returning to school to an experience he recently had making a sweet potato souffle for his midterm project.
Pelt recalled how he thought he had ruined the dessert when he flipped it so the pecans and brown sugar were no longer on the top.
Trying to fix what he feared was a wasted dish, he sprinkled on more pecans and brown sugar, then put it in to bake.
It came out better than he had hoped.
"Coming back to school, for me, is just like when I messed up on the souffle and had to take a different route," he said. "My outcome came out even better."