It was the low tuition that persuaded Alex Nowodazkij to enroll at Howard Community College in Columbia.
But for the past three years, the cost of attending HCC and other community colleges statewide has shot up, leaving Nowodazkij and other students scrambling to pay for their education.
HCC announced this week that tuition for 2005-2006 would increase again, by $5 a credit. Other community colleges are contemplating similar action as they prepare next year's budgets.
"Some of the students work two jobs to make a living," said Nowodazkij, 21, president of the student body. "Some have kids and are paying child care. ... I don't know if anyone has given up going to college because of that, but many are taking a lot less classes."
While enrollment has risen at community colleges, the two-year institutions have struggled for money. Funding from the state, which has been grappling with a fiscal crisis, has failed to keep up with increasing enrollment. Most counties in Maryland have been unable to make up the difference.
In the past four years, tuition at HCC has increased by 23 percent, and next year will stand at $105 a credit for students who live in Howard County. To help, HCC administrators have added scholarships and held seminars to help students to better manage money.
"One of the main reasons students come to community colleges is because they are very sensitive to the cost," said Barbara Ash, research director for the Maryland Association of Community Colleges. "A hundred dollars one way or the other makes a big difference to them."
Enrollment statewide has increased by 15 percent, from 103,361 in fiscal 2001 to 118,880 in fiscal 2005.
The increase, Ash said, is driven by higher high school enrollment, the increased importance of college degrees and higher tuition fees and raised admission standards at many four-year colleges. Over the next 10 years, full-time-student enrollment is projected to increase by 27 percent at community colleges, according to the Maryland Higher Education Commission.
Not kept pace
Meanwhile, state funding has not kept pace. For the past three years, the amount of state funding per student has steadily fallen, reflecting the economic downturn after 9/11 and a state budget crisis. In fiscal 2002, community colleges received $1,855 in state funds for every full-time-equivalent student. Today that figure is $1,663.
Before the budget crisis, state legislators had established the Cade formula to ensure stable funding for community colleges. Two-year colleges would receive an amount roughly equivalent to 25 percent of the University of Maryland budget. But in recent years, legislators have cut funding and revised the formula.
And as a result, community colleges have struggled to make up the shortage.
The budget crunch forced the Community College of Baltimore County to restructure its administrative system by cutting staff and closing programs. Now, two presidents - instead of three - oversee the college's three campuses.
"This has not been without some pain," said CCBC Chancellor Irving Pressley McPhail.
Besides raising tuition three times in two years, Anne Arundel Community College eliminated 35 jobs in fiscal 2004, froze salaries and reduced supplies and equipment.
`A wake-up call'
"It hurt us big time," said Linda Schulte, spokeswoman for the college. "You can't just make up several million [dollars] overnight. At some point, you can only cut so much."
Now skittish about cuts in the future, AACC is starting to look outside its three main sources of revenue - county funds, state funds and tuition.
"What it was, in one sense, was a wake-up call," Schulte said. "Now we're exploring getting federal grants and building up corporate partners."
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s proposed budget for fiscal 2006 has given educators reason to hope. The governor has promised $191.6 million for community colleges, which brings funding up to the level recommended in the original Cade formula.
"We're not talking about big dollars here, but it's a step in the right direction," said CCBC's McPhail. "We're moving the formula back to where it should be."
Ash is cautiously optimistic.
"A lot of the colleges haven't even recovered from the past few years. If we get this year's increase, maybe we'll be able to hold steady," she said. "We're keeping our fingers crossed."
The average annual cost of tuition and fees to attend a Maryland community college, with percentage increase each fiscal year:
2002 $2,425 2.8%
2003 $2,528 4.2%
2004 $2,690 6.4%
2005 $2,880 7.1%
Total number of students enrolled for credits at state community colleges with percentage increase:
2002 109,411 5.9%
2003 114,930 5.0%
2004 117,531 2.3%
2005 118,880 1.1%
Amount of state funding per full-time equivalent student with percentage increase:
2002 $1,855 5.2%
2003 $1,817 -2.0%
2004 $1,672 -8.0%
2005 $1,663 -0.5%
SOURCE: Maryland Association of Community Colleges