A convergence of factors, Mendieta said, worsened the already severe enrollment crunch two-year colleges have seen since last year.

“We’re living in an era where the economy is not doing well, which drives students back to community colleges, and it’s also a time when the traditional four-year universities are capping their enrollment, which also brings people to community colleges,” he said. “Those things are driving people back to us.”

Enrollment was climbing in two-year colleges well before the recession cost millions of Americans their jobs over the past year. The U.S. Education Department reported a 10 percent enrollment increase in community colleges from 2000 to 2006. Enrollment in web-based college courses has also risen alongside traditional campus-based classes.

The study, “Staying the Course: Online Education in the United States, 2008,” published by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation last year, said 22 percent of American college students, or 3.94 million students, took at least one web-based class in the fall 2007 semester. That marked an increase of 12.9 percent from the fall 2006 semester. During the same period, overall higher-education enrollment increased by only 1.2 percent, according to the report, which surveyed officials from more than 2,500 colleges and universities.

The jump in online enrollment from 2006 to 2007 is just part of a steady increase in web-based classes this decade. In fall 2002–the Sloan Foundation report’s first year–1.6 million students were taking at least one online class, meaning 9 percent of college students were taking online classes. That number exceeded 2 million in 2004 and topped 3 million in 2005.

“Every year, we think it will level out, and it hasn’t done so quite yet,” said Jeff Seaman, co-author of the Sloan report. “At some point, the demand is going to be met and [enrollment numbers] will meet some sort of steady state.”

While colleges like Miami Dade slash budgets to stay afloat, institutions like Maricopa Community Colleges–a system of 10 campuses and 250,000 students in Arizona–is preparing to meet the rising demand. Maricopa saw a 5 percent enrollment increase in the spring 2009 semester–compared to the fall 2008 semester–and projects a double-digit percentage rise for the school year that starts in August.

“And we can accommodate that, facilities-wise,” said Charles Reinebold, a Maricopa spokesman. “We know…that when the economy tanks, we see increases. …People get laid off, and they look for new ways to train themselves.”

Reinebold said Maricopa did not plan on opening nighttime courses like Portland Community College, but rather intends to hire more adjunct faculty if more sections are needed for some of the most popular classes.

Links:

Miami Dade Community College

Maricopa Community Colleges

Portland Community College