BALTIMORE - John Grabowski can pinpoint exactly when people started to feel like they had job security again.
Around the time the economy tanked in 2008, Grabowski, dean of enrollment at Anne Arundel Community College, began to see an increase in students taking classes at the Arnold school.
“People were worried about their jobs, so they were looking for new skills,” Grabowski said.
A few years later, it’s a different story, and not just at AACC.
For about five years straight, enrollment at Maryland’s 16 community colleges climbed. Then came 2012, and colleges that were used to seeing a steady increase in students saw their numbers begin to drop. By the following year, there was even more of a decrease.
“In a weak economy, people head to the community college for job training. When the economy improves and jobs are more available, or less at risk, job training needs decrease,” said Melissa F. Gregory, chief enrollment services and financial aid officer at Montgomery College in Montgomery County.
At AACC, the Board of Trustees last summer called a special meeting to discuss a potential $6 million deficit in the budget if enrollment didn’t increase. By fall, enrollment was down 6.7 percent from the previous year, not as bad as officials feared.
“Forty percent of our budget comes from tuition and fees,” Grabowski said. “When 40 percent of your budget is affected, yes, that has an impact.”
The pattern began in earnest in 2012, when five community colleges – AACC, Baltimore City Community College, Community College of Baltimore County, Chesapeake College and Prince George’s Community College – saw a dip in enrollment numbers. Eight more saw a drop in enrollment the following year, according to statistics provided by the Maryland Higher Education Commission.
The one college to buck the trend was Howard Community College, which has seen a small but steady increase in students since 2007.
Alison Buckley, Howard’s associate vice president for enrollment services, said that could be attributed in part to a new building and several new programs in the college’s allied health services department.
“That always helps,” said Buckley, adding Howard County, with its proximity to the nation’s capital and thousands of federal jobs, may have been more buffered from the recession in the first place.
Kent Philippe, associate vice president of recruitment and student success for the American Association of Community Colleges, said two-year colleges need to look at the needs of the surrounding community to be successful.
They also need to focus on helping their current students be successful so they stay in school, Phillippe said.
But while numbers may have dipped over the last few years, he pointed out enrollment is still trending upward overall.
Since 2007, 12 of Maryland’s 16 community colleges saw their numbers grow, according to the MHEC.
“I think that’s important to keep in mind,” Phillippe said.
In 2011, a report by the Campus Computing Project found enrollment at community colleges was still growing, though not as quickly as in 2009 and 2010.
The research group’s Community Colleges and the Economy Survey, which looked at 448 community colleges, found that 31 percent of community colleges saw enrollment grow by at least 15 percent in 2010. In 2011, only 12 percent of community colleges reported gains of 15 percent or higher.
From 2008 through 2012, there was a 130 percent increase at Montgomery College in financial aid applicants who already held bachelor’s degrees.
Last year, there was virtually no increase in the number of financial aid applicants who already had bachelor’s degrees, Gregory said.
Gregory also suggested parents, already stressed by a tight economy, might have been more likely to push their children toward two years at a cheaper community college.
When the economy improves, parent job fears are reduced, colleges and universities become more generous with their financial aid packages, and families may be more receptive to sending new high school graduates directly to four-year schools, Gregory said.
Sandra Kurtinitis, president of the Community College of Baltimore County, said economic ups and downs are partially to blame for changes in enrollment.
But she said it still doesn’t tell the whole story.
Kurtinitis, who has been working at community colleges for 46 years, said changes in financial aid qualifications probably had an impact as well.
In 2012, the income threshold for needy students to qualify for a Pell Grant was reduced from $30,000 to $23,000, and students could only qualify for the grant for 12 semesters instead of 18. Interest rates on subsidized federal Stafford loans also increased to 6.8 percent.
After yearly tuition at community colleges spiked about 20 percent in 1993, tuition increases leveled off, increasing an average of 5.8 percent per year, according to the Higher Education Commission.
“If you don’t have the money, you don’t go to school,” Kurtinitis said.
She prefers to look on the bright side.
When enrollment at the Community College of Baltimore County peaked a few years ago, the college was crowded and it was harder, for example, to find places to park.
And an economic uptick is certainly a good thing, she said.
“We want people to have jobs,” she said.
Reaction from students
At AACC, a few students said they were surprised to hear enrollment was declining.
Bridget Gurtshaw, a second year student at AACC, is the last of six children to attend class there. She’s looking to head to dental hygiene school and is trying to get her prerequisite classes out of the way at the community college to save money.
The 18-year-old said her classes appear to be an equal mix of her peers and older, non-traditional students.
“It doesn’t matter where you start out,” Gurtshaw said. “It matters where you finish.”
Yet first year student Wilette Riparip said the numbers didn’t shock her, though she, too, sees a diverse blend of students in her classes.
“A lot of people can’t support their own children and go to school,” said the Annapolis teen, who eventually hopes to transfer to the University of Maryland.