The Great Recession's Toll on Higher Education

The tight economy has forced many students to fight for an affordable, quality education.

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Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio have run out of scholarship money and are turning down thousands of qualified applicants. Public universities in Georgia, Virginia, and Washington have all raised their tuition by about $1,000 for the fall semester. Public colleges in Florida, Louisiana, and Nevada are canceling hundreds of classes for lack of state funding. California has simply shut the door on hundreds of thousands of its high school graduates and workers hoping for new skills.

College officials in troubled states such as Louisiana are girding for further cuts that will be "difficult, painful, and destructive," John Lombardi, president of the Louisiana State University System, warned recently. Students have no choice but to pack into the crowded courses that remain, where overloaded instructors are replacing essay assignments with easier-to-grade (but less educationally rigorous) multiple-choice tests.

The Great Recession has had a devastating effect on higher education, forcing many students across the country to pay more for colleges that offer less. Yet the downturn has also penalized individuals who don't spend the time and money to get a college degree. Even in today's weak job market, the unemployment rate for college graduates is less than 5 percent, about half the rate for those with only a high school diploma. "It's a grim situation," says Lindsay McCluskey, vice president of the United States Student Association. "But what choice do young people have?"

[Learn how budget cuts have affected high school counselors.]

Because of the dramatic budget cuts and tuition increases, she says, today's college students have to work harder to earn degrees than did their older brothers or sisters. Many students are succeeding, but only by borrowing more, finding cheaper or better courses elsewhere, and using their social networking skills to raise money. Perhaps most significantly, they are "being part of the fight" to keep college affordable, McCluskey says, lobbying for change or to block further budget cuts. College students in this more difficult era will find the going tough. "It is not going to be easy," McCluskey says. "But there are ways to make it happen."

A growing number of students are voting with their feet. Enrollment at the nation's lowest-cost institutions, public community colleges, jumped an average 16 percent last year and is expected to rise by double digits again in the 2010-11 academic year. One reason: "reverse transfers." Students at expensive four-year universities are switching to lower-cost two-year schools to get their basics completed inexpensively. Many other students are signing up for summer or night community college courses to pack in cheap credits and graduate sooner.

These swamped classrooms have spurred community colleges to become more creative in their course offerings, from promoting online classes to scheduling classes at nontraditional times. A 20 percent jump in enrollment at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston last year, for example, prompted the school to start offering classes in the middle of the night. The 11:45 p.m. to 2:45 a.m. classes were such a success that the school has increased its midnight offerings from two courses to five in 2010.

Other students are bidding goodbye to crowded classes and overburdened professors. The University of Oregon, for example, has seen the number of applicants from budget-crunched California jump from 4,600 to 7,000. Typical of the new Oregonians is Nate Gartrell, who lost his enthusiasm for studying journalism at San Francisco State University last year when he got shut out of his first-choice courses. He says he sometimes had to sit on the steps in second- and third-choice classes. "The state budget cuts were getting ridiculous," he says. One final straw: "I wrote something hastily 45 minutes before class. I knew it was terrible and was full of typos. I was expecting a D and still got an A minus" from a professor he says was too busy to thoughtfully critique his work.