Still the Best Buy in Town

October 20, 1991

These are tough times for higher education, facing over $100 million in state budget cuts so far this year. Yet even with all these cutbacks, the state's public four-year and two-year colleges are still surprisingly affordable. The best buy in town remains Maryland's 19 community colleges.

Take, for instance, Essex Community College, which occupies a sprawling campus adjacent to Franklin Square Hospital. Essex is one of the largest community colleges in the state, with an enrollment this fall of 10,000 students concentrating on the liberal arts and health-care fields. Faced with a $3 million cut in state aid, the college may have to raise tuition credit fees, furlough workers for three days, cancel January mini-courses, impose a parking fee, close its two off-campus centers and cancel its free courses for seniors.

Yet Essex continues to offer the lowest cost per student of any college in the state. That is appealing to students who cannot afford more expensive schooling and those seeking new job skills. The average age of an Essex student is 30. Half are over 25. Half are female. This is typical of the state's community colleges, which are educational meccas for "non-traditional" /^ students.

Community colleges have several advantages. They rely on part-time faculty members -- often professionals in their specialized fields -- to teach many courses, which gives the schools flexibility to adapt to changing societal needs and swings in the economy. Students are given great leeway to juggle their schedules so they can gain a college education or new skills while working full-time. This also is an ideal way for many to make the transition from high school to higher education and then decide if they want to transfer into a four-year college.

In recessions, community colleges usually thrive. Preparing for new careers becomes imperative for many imperiled workers. It is an inexpensive way for high school graduates to further their education while waiting for the job market to open up. Some middle-class students suddenly find that four-year colleges are unaffordable; they, too, opt to start their studies at a community college.

The current tuition increases at two-year and four-year colleges will create hardships for thousands of students. Still, the two-year schools are priced far lower than other institutions in the public and private sectors. Perhaps that is why enrollments at community colleges jumped a sharp 4 percent this fall. Students know a good bargain when they see it.

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