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Kai Ryssdal: Nearly half of all college students in this country go to community colleges. Often their goal is to transfer to a four-year school. But in this recession some of them are doing just the opposite: leaving four-year schools for classes at community colleges instead. Emily Hanford of American RadioWorks reports now from Montgomery County, Md., just outside of Washington D.C.
EMILY HANFORD: The student center at Montgomery College was packed for the first day of classes this semester.
WOMAN ON CAMPUS: Good morning! Need a campus map? Need some directions? Know where you're going?
The college got so many calls from people wanting to transfer here that they whipped up new brochures explaining the process.
SEKOU Bah: I don't know where the Pavillion 3 is?
WOMAN ON CAMPUS: Pavilion 3?
WOMAN ON CAMPUS: OK...
Sekou Bah is looking for his English class.
BAH: Montgomery College is high school 101 basically.
Bah did not expect to be here. He started college last fall at a university in Pennsylvania. He had a federal Pell Grant, plus a small scholarship. He had to borrow the rest -- about $12,000 a year. It seemed reasonable. Then the economy started tanking.
Bah: When I was at school I always watched the news like every day and then I kept on seeing the economy's going down da, da,da, da, and then they would talk about how loans would be harder to get, and how all these things would happen.
Then there was some kind of snag with his scholarship, and he got a bill he didn't expect. He had to borrow $2,000 from his sister. He started adding up all the money he was going to owe.
Bah: I got fearful and I was like, I'd rather not risk it, I'd rather be safe.
Professor: English 101/102 is a two-semester sequence of reading, writing development.
Bah's classes here at Montgomery College cost him nothing; his Pell Grant covers the entire tuition. And his English class has only 25 students. He had bigger classes last semester.
In the crowded campus center there are lots of students here because it's cheaper. The college doesn't know exactly how many are transfers from four-year schools like Bah, but overall enrollment is up nearly 10 percent from this time last year.
BRAD Stewart: The word is out about community colleges and the value they provide.
This is Brad Stewart, the provost. His big job on the first day of classes is to stand outside the parking garage and calmly explain to his new students that it's full, and they should take the bus. Later today he'll put on a different hat and head to Annapolis for a reception with state legislators.
Stewart: We'll go to play defense tonight. We'll say thank you for everything you've done, and we'll say please don't do anything to our budget.
The state provides about 15 percent of their budget. The county provides even more. And no one's being spared this year. Montgomery College has already imposed a hiring freeze. There's no funding for new programs, no salary increases. More cuts are probably coming. And more students, too.
In the admissions and advising office there's an hour-long wait. Entire families are here. The TV is tuned to CNN -- 7,000 job cuts at Home Depot today, 8,000 at Sprint. Some parents are trying to come up with tuition for their children and themselves. Melissa Gregory thinks it's only the beginning. She's the financial aid director, and she's bracing for next fall when she's expecting more of what she saw at the beginning of this school year. Just days before classes began, parents coming into her office with financial aid letters from other schools.
Melissa Gregory: From College Park, from American University, from GW, with wonderful financial-aid packages - but they came in and said "OK, um, there was a lot of loan in here, we can't afford to go there. Will you honor this award letter?"
These were families that had said yes to colleges, yes to financial-aid packages. But at the last minute they got cold feet.
Professor: Have a good day, and I'll see you again on Wednesday.
Seokou Bah's English class is going well. It's two months into the semester, and it turns out he actually likes Montgomery College. The classes are good, and they're all in the morning so he has time to work in the afternoon. In this terrible economy he managed to get a job at the mall. And with his tuition fully covered by his Pell grant, he's set.
Bah: I have so much money now, extra money. I can get new stuff, anything I really want I can get.
He's paying off his loans from last semester, and saving up to buy a car.
I'm Emily Hanford for Marketplace.
Kai Ryssdal: Tomorrow, we visit a small, private college with a big ticket-price. Officials are worried about attracting students in these tough economic times.