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From Bust to Boom

The recession has caused a spike in enrollment at two-year schools like Austin Community College, which now educates more than 40,000 students — within striking distance of the great behemoth, the University of Texas at Austin.

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Enrollment at Austin Community College, one of the state’s biggest two-year schools, spiked 12 percent between last spring and this spring, continuing fast-paced growth over the last three years amid an economic downturn, college officials announced Wednesday. The 41,050 students currently enrolled put ACC within striking distance of the University of Texas at Austin, which reported slightly more than 51,000 students in attendance for the fall semester. And it’s the latest of several years of growth at ACC, which has grown nearly 40 percent since 2005 and plans to grow quite a bit more.

The recession has driven enrollments up at schools statewide, as some workers view the tough job market as an opportunity to burnish their credentials, university officials and politicians have said. ACC is no exception. “It’s not just unemployed people who are going to back to school but people who feel their employment is in danger,” said Kathleen Christensen, ACC’s vice president of student support and success systems. “Sometimes just seeing a friend or family member lose a job drives people to improve their skills.”

But the growth at ACC stems from a host of other factors as well, officials at the college said Wednesday, including continuing population growth in the Austin region and aggressive recruiting efforts. “We’re one of the largest community colleges not only in Texas but in the country,” said Mary Hensley, executive vice president of college operations.

The growth at ACC, though it has come faster than at most Texas community colleges, mirrors enrollment growth statewide at the two-year schools, which now educate more students than public universities, according to figures from the state Higher Education Coordinating Board. With that growth, community colleges have played a key role in extending access to college, particularly for lower-income and minority students. But any excitement over increased enrollment must be tempered by the reality that the majority of community college students never earn a credential. According to the most recent longitudinal data — which counted only full-time students, overestimating graduation rates — less than a third of Texas community college students earned either a two- or four-year degree or vocational certificate within six years. The same held true for ACC.

Like all community colleges, ACC is open enrollment, meaning it has no admissions requirement, much like a public high school. That presents both a huge opportunity for enrollment growth and a huge challenge in educating large numbers of students who come needing remedial classes before advancing to college-credit work — a barrier that keeps many from earning the degrees and certificates that ultimately pay off in higher earning power. 

While ACC officials have acknowledged room for improvement in outcomes, they are nonetheless pushing hard for expanding access. “Our desire is for more students to participate in higher education no matter how and where they want to participate with us,” Hensley said.

The student body at ACC is largely part time, attending an array of seven campuses, 10 smaller centers and about 80 additional sites that typically host just one class. The average ACC student takes about seven credit hours, or half a full class load, according to college figures.

ACC has extensive plans for future growth, including a new campus scheduled to open in Round Rock this fall, initially for 5,000 students but eventually for up to 11,000. Moreover, steering committees in the communities of Bastrop, Elgin, McDade, San Marcos and north Hays County are discussing allowing ACC to annex that territory into their taxing and service district. The college, meanwhile, is already making plans to buy land for future campuses there, Hensley said.

While growth of all kinds of students spiked at ACC, growth in African-American and Hispanic students grew even faster. The number of African-American students grew by 20 percent, for a total of more than 3,700 students. Hispanic enrollment grew by 14 percent, to more than 10,200 students.

College officials attributed the boost to aggressive recruiting efforts at local high schools, including allowing students to register on the spot. “We’ve taken enrollment process to the high schools,” said Luanne Preston, executive director of school relations and supervisor of the off-campus centers. “And we’ve marketed heavily to Hispanic populations, putting our materials in Spanish.” 

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