Driven by substantial increases in the number of students attending two-year community colleges, enrollment in the state's public and private colleges and universities grew by 3.6 percent this fall, reaching a record high of 191,227.
Michael P. Meotti, commissioner of higher education, attributed the increase — the largest annual percentage gain in two decades — to the poor economy.
"The harder it becomes to find a job, the more people opt to enroll in college for retraining or a degree," Meotti said in a statement. "Many are taking advantage of lower-cost two-year colleges while students at four-year colleges appear to be staying there until they get their degree."
The state Department of Education released preliminary enrollment figures Friday for this fall that broke previous records for the eighth straight year in what has been a steady climb since 1997.
Enrollment at two-year colleges jumped by 8.2 percent, while the increase at four-year colleges and universities was 1.8 percent.
Typically, enrollment rates are driven by birth rates, Meotti said, but that was not the case this year. "We are actually a little bit past the peak of a baby boom," said Meotti. "We would have expected enrollment growth to be tapering off now."
The weakened economy staved off any steadying or decline in enrollment growth, he said. "When the economy turns down, more adults return to higher education," Meotti said, "because of the recognition that additional education will enhance their chances of getting a better-paying job."
The report showed record high enrollment figures for nine of the state's 12 community colleges, with the highest rates of increases at Middlesex Community College, which saw an 11.1 percent increase, and Manchester Community College, which had a 10.8 percent increase.
Eastern and Western Connecticut state universities hit record high enrollments of 5,610 and 6,617, respectively, and Central and Southern Connecticut state universities have increased enrollments. The University of Connecticut's Storrs campus also saw record-high enrollment of 24,513. The enrollment figures included both graduate and undergraduate students.
Most of the state's private colleges also experienced increases in enrollment, with Yale University at a record high of 11,593 undergraduates and graduate students, an increase of 1.3 percent over last year. Others with record high enrollments include Briarwood College in Southington, Post University in Waterbury, Quinnipiac University in Hamden, and Goodwin College in Hartford.
Meotti said the increases demonstrate that Connecticut residents "recognize the economic significance of higher education. ... People recognize the contribution that more education or training has on economic opportunity."
"The state should listen to this very real voice of the people in terms of crafting its own state economic strategy and recognizing the importance of higher education as a fundamental driver of economic strength," he said.
At Manchester Community College, which is serving 7,366 students this fall, President Gena Glickman said officials are struggling "to find adjunct faculty and classrooms and even developing online sections to meet the need. It's an incredible need."
To ease a parking shortage, Glickman said, she has 200 to 300 cars parking on the grass at a band shell.
With the state's retirement incentive program, Glickman said, the college lost full-time faculty and has to rely more heavily on adjunct staff. "We are always worrying about whether we will have enough sections of classes for students to maintain their full-time status," said Glickman.
She believes the economy is driving younger students to the community colleges because they are "incredibly cost-effective," while older students are enrolling to pick up new skills and certifications for the job market.
The college with the greatest percentage increase in students this year is Post University in Waterbury, where enrollment increased by 53.5 percent to 2,590, according to state figures. Kelly Statmore, spokeswoman at Post, said "the lion's share of the increase" is accounted for by the university's burgeoning online programs. "This is largely because a lot of working adults are looking for ways to get an education in a flexible fashion on the nights and on the weekends," said Statmore.
She said the increases are mainly in business programs and a new online master's in business administration.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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