The Less-Costly Way to College Students Turning to Community Schools as State Funds Wither; University Tuitions Rise

Article excerpt

Byline: James Fuller Daily Herald Staff Writer

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CORRECTION/date 08-12-2003: A chart in some July 20 editions should have said the 2003 operating revenues at Oakton Community College totaled $47.4 million. About 59 percent of it was property tax; 14.2 percent state funding and 24 percent was tuition and fees. The 2004 operating revenue is

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Among a dozen peers, 18-year-old Nello Lucchesi sits at a solitary table in the student administration center, scribbling on a form that will start him on the path to a criminal law degree.

Lucchesi hasn't selected Northwestern or the University of Illinois to start becoming a lawyer. He is one member of a growing class of students choosing Harper College and similar institutions this fall.

For him and many others, school is as much about pocketbook as it is textbook.

Community colleges in Illinois boasted a nearly 5 percent increase in enrollment last year, compared with a 3 percent increase for four-year schools.

Living with his parents in Crystal Lake, Lucchesi is willing to pay the higher out-of-district cost to get the classes he wants at Harper. Even at $280 per credit hour, it's less debt than he would accumulate at a university.

"A lot of people don't have a lot of money to afford a four-year school," Lucchesi said. "If you have a job, you can keep your job and still go to college. You can keep the cost down."

Enrollment has surged to a record 40,000 students at Harper College.

At Elgin Community College, credit class enrollment this fall is up 15.5 percent, drawing in students like Emily Restis.

"At one point, I had hoped to go to Northern Illinois University, but ECC is more in my price range," the 18-year-old Bartlett High School graduate said.

"When I thought about paying $16,000 or $18,000 for college, I said no way. Especially since ECC is less than $2,000 and then you're good to go," Restis said.

Even Oakton Community College, which draws partly from the affluent North Shore, reports a 5 percent growth.

Why the new demand?

Experts say local high school graduating classes are larger than before, while tuition at four-year universities is more expensive and parents have less money to pay for it.

As well, while more students are qualifying and applying for financial aid, there's less money in the grant pool.

"Overall, the trend is when the economy is slow, enrollment is high," said Michele Brown, Oakton's director of admissions and enrollment management. "Two years ago, when 9/11 happened, the economy started a downtrend that trickled down to us.

"This is the first year we're seeing a big impact."

During the Reagan-era recession, College of DuPage saw its student population increase by 13,000.

"It's not unusual to see an increase when there is an uncertain economy nationwide," said COD spokesman Bill Troller.

The impact delay for Oakton is traceable to the affluent North Shore communities it draws from, Brown said. …