LANSING - Enrollments at community colleges nationwide and in Michigan are leveling out following years of significant growth, experts said.
Enrollments across the country rose by 21.8 percent from 2007 to 2010, but dropped by 1 percent from 2010 to 2011, according to the American Association of Community Colleges in Washington.
Michigan enrollment dropped by 3.75 percent from fall 2010 to fall 2011, according to the Michigan Community College Network.
George Cartsonis, communications director for Oakland Community College, said, "Enrollments at community colleges are what we call counter-cyclical.
"When an economy goes bad, our enrollments shoot up, and when the economy gets better they tend to level off," he said
Cartsonis noted Oakland hit record enrollment last fall at 29,962, a 26 percent increase from 2002.
"What spurs this is the large number of people who have been laid off, particularly by the auto companies and suppliers. They come to our community college in hopes of finding an alternate career," he said.
The college is offering more classes to meet student demand.
"We have a weekend college that we instituted a year or so ago, and it is designed in such a way that people can come on Friday night and Saturday and complete their associate's degree," Cartsonis said.
Washtenaw Community College experienced the same enrollment hike and brokered a deal to rent classroom space from the University of Michigan, said Linda Blakey, its associate vice president of student services. But the college was never able to fill all the rented space so it ended the deal.
She said the college also rented a parking lot from Eastern Michigan University and shuttled students to and from campus until its own parking structure was built.
Henry Ford Community College also expanded to meet the demands of higher enrollment. The college offered more classes, hired additional faculty and acquired buildings close to campus to increase classroom space, said Gary Erwin, director of communications.
Washtenaw's Blakey said the rise in enrollment was abnormal, fueled by federal stimulus funds, the No Worker Left Behind program and plant closings in the area.
Howard Hughey, temporary manager of media relations for Macomb Community College, agrees that those factors created the jump.
"A lot of that had to do with the funding that came from government programs that sent people back to school for education and retraining," Hughey said. "As the money dried up, naturally we saw enrollment taper off."
No Worker Left Behind allowed unemployed state residents and those in jobs earning less than $40,000 a year to receive $10,000 in tuition over two years at a Michigan community college or university.
Oakland's Cartsonis said he expects the economic recovery to move slowly, which means enrollment will level out and possibly decrease.
But the changes to programs won't be dramatic, he said.
"As long as the economy stays sluggish, we expect enrollment to stay at the kind of levels they are at. If the economy improves, enrollments will tend to drop off until the next economic cycle," he said.