College enrollment at record high

Some are there because of the recession, and others despite it. Regardless, more young Americans than ever are in college — especially community college, according to a new report.

A record high of about 11.5 million Americans age 18 to 24, or nearly 40 percent, attended college in October 2008, according to a study of Census data released Thursday by the Pew Research Center. Virtually all the increase of 300,000 students over the previous year came at two-year schools, while attendance at four-year schools remained flat.

Community colleges almost certainly saw attendance go up at least that much again this year, though final figures are not yet available. The American Association of Community Colleges reports growth rates of 10 percent and higher have been common this fall on many campuses.

Overall college attendance has been going up for about 30 years; what's new is the sharp uptick at community colleges, driven in large part by recessionary bargain hunting and closer ties between two- and four-year colleges that give students more confidence they'll be able to transfer.

"It's not just middle-aged people coming back to school and very poor people any more," said Mike Grace, 24, a student at Wake Technical Community College in Raleigh, N.C., who plans to transfer to nearby North Carolina State next spring. "I'm seeing what I would consider to be relatively rich kids coming to school."

As a broader range of traditional-age college students choose a community college, "it doesn't have the stigma it once did," Grace said.

Last year, nearly 12 percent of all 18- to 24-year-olds, or 3.4 million, were enrolled in community colleges, up from 10.9 percent the year before.

While it's good news more students are enrolled in college, the Census figures say nothing about whether two-year institutions will succeed in getting students the credentials they seek or helping them transfer to bachelor's degree programs.