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Rising learning curve Community college programs lure record number of students

The economy is struggling, and college tuition is soaring.

That's bad for most.

Maybe not so bad for community colleges.

Enrollment is at record highs in community colleges around Western New York -- roughly 40,000 students.

The number of full- and part-time students is 13,281 this year at Erie Community College, while enrollment is up to about 6,670 at Niagara County Community College and more than 6,700 at Genesee Community College.

"We're a bargain for the buck," said ECC President Jack F. Quinn Jr.

Colleges, in general, have enjoyed a bump in enrollment and applications, thanks in part to the large numbers coming out of high school and pursuing a higher education.

But community colleges believe their price tag also is a draw at a time when college tuition is shocking for parents -- particularly when many kids aren't sure yet what they really want to do.

"They're realizing they get a better value in sending their kids to community college as a first step in getting a four-year degree," said Bassam Deeb, vice president of student services at NCCC.

Last year, the annual average cost for tuition and fees was $6,185 for in-state residents attending a public four-year college and $23,712 at a four-year private school, according to The College Board, which tracks tuition.

At two-year public schools, the average was $2,361 a year.

Tuition and fees are considerably more than the statewide average for the full-time students in Western New York -- about $3,590 at GCC, $3,634 at NCCC and $3,690 at ECC.

But Matt Carberry, a first-year ECC student from Elma, still thinks it's a deal.

By comparison, the cost is $5,375 for a year at Buffalo State College, $6,284 at the University at Buffalo and $28,157 at Canisius College.

"I was able to get into Buffalo State and Medaille," said Carberry, 21. "But I just chose here because of the price. I'm paying for college myself."

Ashley Sajdak, another ECC student, started out at UB but found it wasn't for her.

"So I came here to get credits," said Sajdak, 21, of Lancaster, "and save money."

One the one hand, the interest in community colleges has led to benefits, like more partnerships with four-year schools. It has made it easier for students to slip into a four-year program upon completing their two-year degree, while the four-year colleges get access to a vast pool of community college candidates.

On the other hand, the growth at community colleges is putting pressure on them to improve services, upgrade facilities and keep down class sizes.

"We're nowhere at that point where we have to turn people away, that's for sure," Quinn said. "But we have waiting lists in many of our course selections. Nursing is one. Auto technology is another."

The economy is a factor in all of this, too.

"Historically, when the economy is not doing well, enrollment goes up," said Norma Kent, a spokeswoman with the American Association of Community Colleges.

"People take it as an opportunity to get marketable skills," Kent said, "or to reskill totally for a different career."

A variety of new degree and certificate programs continues to evolve out of the local community colleges to help retrain a local work force in a changing economy.

At ECC, there's training in computer systems security, for example, or homeland security or casino gaming machine repair.

Genesee offers an entrepreneurship program for people to explore small-business opportunities.

"At this point, a lot of manufacturing is going overseas," said Richard Card, 42, a former carpenter from Hamburg, who came to ECC to study civil engineering. "You have to go back and get some form of education. If not, you're going to get swept under the rug."

There also are other, more subtle factors driving enrollment, which has been climbing for the past several years, said Richard Washousky, executive vice president of academic affairs at ECC.

While students may feel compelled to attend a four-year college right out of high school, Washousky believes a growing number lack the academic depth, or maturity, to make that transition.

Case in point: ECC saw a record number of transfer students from four-year institutions this year.

Meanwhile, flexibility offered at community colleges is important to the many students who work or have families, one of the reasons enrollment in online courses has doubled the past five years to more than 4,200.

In addition, Washousky said, there are so many state-mandated courses in high school, students don't often have the room to explore what field they want to pursue.

Taking an affordable route through community college to figure it out is an attractive option, he said.

"More and more kids are coming out of high school and not quite sure what they want to do yet," Washousky said. "Parents and students are reaching out to community colleges to help with that decision-making process."

At least that's what Arika Buckley of Cheektowaga did.

"I wasn't exactly positive what I wanted to do," said Buckley, 19, who is considering mortuary studies after ECC, "and I didn't want to pay $20,000 a year for not knowing what I wanted to do."

e-mail: jrey@buffnews.com

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