Richard K. Vessels hesitated when he was signing up for beginning Photoshop, a continuing education course at Howard Community College.
Not because the self-employed Web designer didn't need to take the class, or because he wasn't interested or didn't have the time.
It's just that during better economic times, when Vessel worked for a large telecommunications firm, his employer would have paid for the course. Now he's on his own.
"When it's your own money, you think a little harder," he said. "You have to choose very wisely and very carefully."
Although Vessels decided to take the nearly $150 class, others are opting to skip similar courses. Because of the tightening economy, fewer and fewer companies are paying for employees to take continuing education courses, and people who are self-employed are reluctant to pay for their educations, experts say.
While enrollment during the past year rose nearly 8 percent at HCC, enrollment in continuing education courses dropped 1 percent during the same period. Projections show that continuing education enrollment could drop again next year, although administrators say it is too early to tell.
Although continuing education had grown steadily for much of the past decade, the downturn was not unexpected. "During an economic downturn, credit courses go up and noncredit goes down," said Joanne Hawkins, vice president for continuing education and work force development at HCC.
Among the hardest-hit areas are classes that typically are taken purely for pleasure, Hawkins said.
"If there's not enough money, then [prospective students are] not going to take that yoga course or that Spanish course just for fun," Hawkins said.
Such is the case for Vessels, who runs his own computer company, Skipjack Professional Services Inc. Vessels, who often attended continuing education courses when he worked for telecommunication companies, was laid off last year.
Since then, Vessels has been extra-selective about which courses he takes, but decided to attend the Photoshop course to help him design Web pages.
"You have to have current knowledge, and the only way to do that is to attend classes," he said. "But you feel the pinch more when you're on your own."
Not all colleges are experiencing the same drop-off. For instance, continuing education enrollment at Anne Arundel Community College increased 15 percent, to nearly 34,000 students, during the past academic year. At Montgomery College, officials predict that nearly 28,000 people will take a continuing education course, up nearly 10 percent from this year.
"We were worried at how the year might turn out, but it's proved to be a little more resilient than we thought," said George Payne, vice president of work force development and continuing education at Montgomery College.
HCC officials say they are hopeful that an improving economy will produce an upswing in continuing education enrollment with a little help from students such as Herschel Gloger, who recently signed up for a course purely for "mental stimulation."
The 54-year-old Columbia resident has no interest in starting a career as a Web designer, but as an amateur photographer he is interested in displaying his pictures on the Web.
"If people are interested, they're going to find a way to take the course," Gloger said.