College is the place to be for some as job market remains tough

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 2, 2009

By Sarah Nagem
Most local colleges say they are gearing up for a jump in enrollment this year ó and the sagging economy could have something to do with it.
Administrators at Pfeiffer University, Livingstone College and Rowan-Cabarrus Community College say more students are enrolling for the fall semester. Catawba College is the only local school seeing a drop in numbers.
The community college is expecting up to 5,600 students this fall. That’s a jump of about 300 from last year at this time.
“The job market has a lot to do with,” said Joan Creeger, director of records and registration at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College.
Layoffs at companies like Freightliner and the weak economy could be sending more people back to school, Creeger said.
That’s a trend that has been common among community colleges in the past: When jobs are hard to come by, would-be workers opt for higher education.
“As always, as the economy goes down, our enrollment generally goes up,” said Audrey Bailey, spokeswoman for the N.C. Community College System.
It’s not a foolproof generalization, though. While some community colleges across the state are seeing an enrollment boom, some are experiencing a decrease, Bailey said.
High gas prices might be keeping some students home, she said.
On Friday, some freshmen at Pfeiffer University moved into their dorms. Some parents who were helping their children get settled in said scholarship money will help foot the tuition bill.
Whitney York, an 18-year-old from Iredell County, said her scholarships will cover about two-thirds of the cost to attend Pfeiffer.
York’s father, Wayne, said his daughter had considered attending the local community college. She had also been accepted to Appalachian State, which is cheaper than Pfeiffer.
But in the end, York and her family chose Pfeiffer.
“Some kids aren’t ready to leave home,” Wayne York said, explaining the benefits of a community college for some. “She’s ready. We didn’t want to hold her back.”
About 90 percent of Pfeiffer students receive financial aid to pay the nearly $26,000 yearly tuition and room and board, said Steve Cumming, vice president for enrollment management.
The average financial aid package last year at Pfeiffer was $12,000. This year, more and more students are asking about financial assistance, Cumming said.
The school is expecting about 820 students at its Misenheimer campus this fall ó a jump of about 40 students from last fall.
Cumming said he was worried Pfeiffer’s enrollment might go down this year with the sour economy. Students can spend a lot less to earn college credits elsewhere ó community college students, for example, pay no more than $672 a semester for classes.
He was pleased to see more students coming to Pfeiffer.
“When you see the economy suffer through a rough patch like we are, I think it shows the importance of a college education,” Cumming said.
At Livingstone, school officials are bracing for about 1,100 students. Last year, the school enrolled about 900, said State Alexander, executive assistant to the president and director of public relations.
Alexander said the jump in enrollment could be due to more aggressive marketing and recruitment by the college. Or the economy could be a factor, he said.
“It’s just really hard to say,” Alexander said.
To accommodate all of its students, Livingstone will house more than 100 people at College Park Salisbury Apartments on Wilkesboro Road.
Construction of a new residence hall is set to be finished in October, Alexander said.
While some local colleges are dealing with growth, enrollment at Catawba College is dropping slightly, said Dr. Michael Bitzer, associate professor of political science and the dean of admissions.
The college is expecting about 900 day students this semester. Bitzer said 957 day students enrolled in the fall 2007 semester.
Students pay nearly $30,000 a year in tuition and room and board at Catawba. Some people just can’t afford it during tough times, Bitzer said.
“It is the economy,” he said of Catawba’s lower enrollment. “The economy has hit higher education harder than most people have expected.”
Bitzer said he won’t be surprised if more students flock to community colleges.
“Perhaps when the economy turns around, we’ll see more people transfer out of community colleges into a four-year institution,” he said.
In the meantime, Bitzer said, Catawba is trying to attract more local students and become more selective in its admissions.