It looks like boom time for Maryland's community colleges. During the 1991-92 academic year, more credited students were enrolled at the two-year schools than at four-year institutions. For the second year in a row, more than half of the state's undergraduates attended community colleges.
The lure of the community colleges is not hard to fathom. Unlike many big universities, they don't demand that one fork over his or her entire life savings. Tuition and fees for a full-time student at a two-year college average about $1,200 a year, roughly half the cost for students at public four-year schools and about one-eighth the cost for private university students.
Flexibility is another appealing feature of community colleges. Students wishing to graduate from a four-year school can transfer their credits after attending a two-year college. Others seeking intensive, up-to-the-minute training in many diverse professions can study for two years and then venture into the job market, where two-thirds of community college graduates quickly find employment, according to a study released this year by the Maryland Association of Community Colleges.
The two-year schools aren't just for recent high school grads, either. The median age of Maryland's community college students, 25, indicates the desire among many people -- especially those forced into making career changes -- to sharpen their job skills or their general knowledge with a course or two. Low student-instructor ratios, faculty members who care more about teaching than about researching their next tenure-saving tome, and proximity to business and residential centers are among other reasons community colleges attract people of all ages, interests and income groups.
Yet while enrollment is up, state and local aid is down. Maryland slashed state funding for the schools by 8 percent from July 1988 through last June. Administrators, mindful of the huge state deficit, are bracing for even more cuts. Baltimore County's three community colleges have watched the local government's contribution fall from 49 percent of the schools' budgets in 1988 to 42 percent this year. That figure should continue to drop as the effects of further cuts in state aid reverberate throughout Maryland's 24 jurisdictions.
Faced with these aid reductions, the two-year colleges have had to raise tuition and fees in recent years. The schools are still a bargain, administrators boast. At the same time, they realize that if the next round of state budget cuts necessitates teacher lay-offs, the elimination of programs or other harsh measures, their boast could be silenced.