If you're planning to enroll in a community college sometime in 2009, be sure to plan ahead. While in the past, late registration may have resulted in students not getting a class or two they wanted, increased interest in two year schools may produce an even more pronounced effect. Community colleges across the country are receiving more applications and admitting more students for the 2008-2009 academic year than ever before, with some institutions reporting percentage growths in the double digits. Many schools are seeing enrollment increases so dramatic that they lack the money and space to adequately accommodate the students turning up on their doorsteps.
Community colleges and four-year state colleges are contending with state budget cuts, declining endowments, and less fruitful fundraising efforts in the face of the worst economic situation in decades. Meanwhile, the cash-strapped and the frugal are flocking to the least expensive educational options available, which are community colleges. Community colleges are also seeing an uptick in nontraditional students, as the unemployed return to school for job training and certification to get back to work. All of this adds up to a situation where more students need seats in classes, college services, and student financial aid than ever before, yet fewer resources are available to accommodate these needs.
While schools are doing their best to find space, add courses and sections, and increase campus-based aid where possible, budgetary difficulties are an unfortunate reality. The economic stimulus bill currently in the works in Congress may help relieve some of this stress, but students should still be aware of potential snags in their college plans. If you plan to enroll in a community college this summer or fall, here are some steps to take:
- Research costs and payment options now. Do a scholarship search. Many scholarships are available to community college students and some are awarded specifically to students at these institutions.
- Apply for admission and financial aid as early as possible. While most community colleges have rolling admission, students who wait until the last minute to get in may find classes full and aid exhausted.
- Whether you're a new or returning student, register for classes as soon as you can and be sure to pay your bill on time, or early if possible. If you get dropped or prevented from registering due to late payment, there's no guarantee a seat will still be there when you get your finances in place.
- Complete the FAFSA soon, even if you're not sure if or when you'll start college in 2009. FAFSA applications are up this year, as are most varieties of financial aid applications. This could mean a lengthier processing time, both at the Department of Education and in your college's financial aid office. The FAFSA is worth doing--many community college students don't apply for aid, even though they qualify. Applying is free and having one on file can't hurt, even if you don't go to school right away.
- If your employer helps with tuition, find out beforehand whether they pay up front or reimburse you after the fact. The earlier you know whether you need to come up with money on your own or the more warning they have before they need to pay, the better your chances are of being able to register on time.
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