By Rebecca LaFlure
Killeen Daily Herald
More Central Texas residents sought a higher education this year amid a plummeting stock market and soaring unemployment rate.
Central Texas College's student population rose by 4.8 percent from 13,152 students in spring 2008 to 13,818 in spring 2009. The college anticipates a continual increase for the fall semester.
CTC students are also taking on heftier class schedules. Course enrollment rose by 11.2 percent over the past year.
"We've been kind of flat for the last couple of years because we're driven a lot by Fort Hood," said Barbara Merlo, director of community relations and marketing. "So this year the increase was significant, and I think it is because of the economy."
The hiked enrollment rates reflect a nationwide trend – when jobs are scarce, higher education becomes a more enticing option, particularly at the community college level.
CTC's low price tag attracted a surge of traditional students who decided to spend their first two years at the community college, Merlo said.
The school's certificate-based programs also had enhanced popularity in areas ranging from welding, medical coding, office management and cosmetology, she said.
Temple College experienced even more growth with an annual 11.5 percent increase in student enrollment. The school surpassed 5,000 students for the first time ever this year.
"In the past three years we've seen an increase in our enrollment numbers," said Fred Pena, director of financial aid. "Some people are coming back due to being laid off. Others are just coming back to school to get a different skill."
Tarleton State University-Central Texas, an upper-level university, enrolled 1,204 full-time students this spring, exceeding its enrollment goal by 204 students.
Tracy Teaff, Tarleton's academic dean, ties the growing student body to recruitment efforts, but said more people are returning to school because of the dwindling economy.
The University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, a private and pricier, four-year university in Belton, did not have an annual enrollment increase, but the current students took more course hours, said Rob Brown, assistant vice president of enrollment management and director of financial aid.
UMHB did see an increase in student applications. Paid deposits went up by 12 percent this spring.
"We actually have more applications for this next '09-10 year than we had for the '08-09 year," Brown said.
"So right now the number of students we've accepted is up, and the number of applications that we're dealing with is up. All that remains to be seen is who shows up in August, and if our enrollment is up. All indicators are that it should be."
Brown credits the application increase to making more student contacts. The university predicted an enrollment decline driven by the economy, he said.
"We'd been working the seniors across Texas harder than we had in the past because we were anticipating a stagnating or decreased enrollment," Brown said. "We'd been making more campus visits, and making more phone calls."
The economy has put a strain on everyone's pocket- books, making scholarship and financial aid availability especially important.
The good news is the economic stimulus package signed by President Barack Obama last month boosted college funding opportunities for low-income students in the form of Pell Grants.
The package is expected to increase both the number of students who receive grants and the amount of money students receive.
However, CTC was worried it would not be able to even open a scholarship application this year because of the economy. The CTC Foundation's value dropped by about 25 percent this year, Merlo said.
"The way the scholarships work, it's a foundation and people donate money for scholarships and the money sits in as the corpus, and we award the interest," Merlo said.
"The base amount never goes away. Since the stock market has lost so much and part of the money is invested in stock, the fund itself is down by about 25 percent. Hopefully this will only be a one- or two-year setback for the foundation."
CTC is accepting scholarship applications until March 31, but the college probably won't award as many this year, Merlo said.
Pena said Temple College lost a significant amount of money in its foundation as well, but added, "The lucky thing for us is that some of our endowments are still managed by the college itself, and some of those funds are still strong."
Though significantly more expensive, UMHB has more scholarship opportunities this year, Brown said.
The university's administration allocated additional scholarship money to the financial aid office because of the economic downturn.
"It's going to take more financial aid and stronger scholarship support to be able to recruit the students and help them with their bills," he said. "I think everybody's on board for it's tough in the economy right now, let's all try to help them whether it's money coming from the department of education or money coming from schools like ourselves."
Besides CTC's annual golf tournament, its foundation created two additional fundraising events this year to make up for decreased scholarship funds. A fashion show and luncheon is scheduled for April 23, and a motorcycle run is set for Oct. 17.
Need help to pay for college?
How to apply for financial aid and scholarship opportunities:
To receive any kind of government aid, student must first fill out the Free Application Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.
Apply at www.fafsa.ed.gov
Applicants must have their recent tax returns handy to complete the process.
Students interested in scholarship opportunities at Central Texas College or Temple College can complete an application online. By completing this single form, students will be considered for any scholarship they qualify for. Go to:
Central Texas College: www.ctcd.edu
Temple College: www.templejc.edu