Friday, November 02, 2007

Texas enrollment shift continues

Universities' cost big reason for more rapid growth at community colleges

By MATTHEW TRESAUGUE | Houston Chronicle
October 26, 2007

Texas community colleges grew twice as rapidly as the state's public universities this fall, continuing an enrollment shift that coincides with rising tuition costs, according to preliminary numbers released Thursday.

The state's Higher Education Coordinating Board attributed 60 percent of the new enrollment to community colleges. Overall, 1,225,817 students are attending classes statewide, or 24,421 more than last year — a 2 percent increase.

The growth of community colleges has outpaced that of the four-year schools since the Legislature allowed public universities to set their own tuition rates four years ago.

"There is no question that cost is a factor," said Raymund Paredes, the state's higher education commissioner. "But it's not strictly an issue of economics. It's also, where is the best fit?"

Increasingly, that's community colleges, which now enroll 48 percent of students statewide while public universities enroll 41 percent.

More Texas students attended public universities than two-year schools until the middle 1990s.

The coordinating board projects that as much as 70 percent of Texas' higher education enrollment will be at community colleges by 2015.

The strains already can be seen throughout the fast-growing North Harris Montgomery Community College District. At Cy-Fair College, the district's five-year-old campus in the northwest suburbs, enrollment soared 10 percent to 11,826 students this fall.

Montgomery College, in The Woodlands, has seen its enrollment increase by 8 percent to 8,810 students. To handle the surge, the campus has added portable classrooms and used storage space for faculty offices.

"Everyone would rather go to a university," said Garrett Anderson, who plans to transfer from Montgomery College to a four-year school next year. "But you can do your basics here for a fraction of the cost."

The cost of attending the state's public universities has increased steadily since the Legislature deregulated tuition. Texans now pay an average of $6,437 a year at the four-year schools, compared with $6,185 nationally.

Meanwhile, Texas community colleges charge $1,695 on average, which is less than those in all but three other states and well below the national average.

Before tuition deregulation, Brazosport College charged about a third the average published price of the state's public universities. It's now about a fifth the cost, said Millicent Valek, the college's president.

"Most families in Texas are being priced out of higher education," said Valek, who also chairs the Texas Association of Community Colleges. "Beginning at a community college is becoming more and more common."

Hispanic students now account for more than half the new college students statewide.

A recent national report found that highly qualified Hispanic students often give cost, proximity to home and campus atmosphere priority over prestige in choosing their schools. Thus, they typically enroll first at community colleges.

Natalia Castillo, a 20-year-old Colombia native, said she chose Houston Community College to sharpen her English skills before pursuing an advertising degree elsewhere.

"I'm happy with my education," Castillo said. "HCC is a good school."

Its enrollment, however, declined 3 percent to 36,032 students this fall. This week, HCC launched a new marketing campaign and pledged to become the nation's "most relevant community college" by adding more academic programs, among other improvements.

According to 12th-day fall figures, enrollment increased at Prairie View A&M University, Sam Houston State University, Texas A&M University and the University of Texas at Austin. The University of Houston held at 34,540 students.

Texas Southern University, in Houston, saw enrollment decrease by 10 percent, most of any state public university, according to the coordinating board's figures. But school officials acknowledged a 15 percent drop. Many students left after the 12th day.

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