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Kai Ryssdal: Many state budgets out there are in only slightly better shape than our national finances. And as a result, a lot of different kinds of people are feeling the pain. Social services and support mechanisms for disabled or low-income families are being cut. Infrastructure repair projects -- at least the ones that aren't getting stimulus money -- aren't getting done. And education is getting squeezed at a time of rising demand.
While enrollment is growing, students at some schools are getting wait-listed for classes by the hundreds because there's no money to pay for extra faculty or staff. Much as in the business world, though, one school's problems are another school's opportunities as Marketplace's Caitlan Carroll reports.
CAITLAN CARROLL: On a wooded hillside about 10 miles south of San Francisco sits the tiny Notre Dame de Namur University. The name's tough to pronounce. But more students are calling the school home since the recession hit.
HERNAN BUCHELLI: For Notre Dame, since about 2003, overall our enrollment had been declining. And then starting in fall 2008 we've seen an uptick and right now we're at our highest enrollment in five years.
Hernan Buchelli is vice president of enrollment. He says Notre Dame de Namur's student body has grown by 200 students since 2008. That's a lot for a school of only 1,600.
Small private colleges like Notre Dame are capitalizing on the crisis in public education. They're pulling in students who can't get into state schools or get the classes they need to graduate on time.
Notre Dame's running print ads and radio spots emphasizing the school's convenience and its evening programs.
NOTRE DAME AD: Notre Dame de Namur University can help you finish your bachelor's degree in the evening in business, liberal studies and social sciences.
There are more than 600 independent colleges in the United States -- some you may have heard of like Reed College in Oregon and Pomona College in California. Some you may not have like St. Bonaventure in New York and Hastings College in Nebraska. Many of the lesser-known schools are trying to attract students with television contests, textbook giveaways and social networking.
I caught up with high school junior Sarah Lemp and her parents at Notre Dame. They let me tag along on their campus tour.
MARY: Our campus is actually a historical landmark of California, and it was also on the Travel Channel for the top 10 most haunted places in California. Haunted? Yes.
The main administrative building from the 1800s is a little spooky. The rest of the campus is more modern. As we walk past the library, Sarah tells me that she really wants to go to San Diego State -- a public school -- but she's worried about getting in and about getting out.
SARAH LEMP: That's what I've heard. It's hard to get classes, and I've heard that it's gotten harder to transfer to U.C. and state.
Her mom Jennifer is worried about the tuition at Notre Dame. It's about $27,000 a year. San Diego State's around $8,000. But Lemp still thinks Notre Dame might be a better fit for her daughter.
JENNIFER LEMP: She wants to get through in four years, and it doesn't happen at Cal State.
Students who turn to private schools also may have access to a bigger pool of scholarship money and aid.
Richard Ekman is the president of the Council of Independent Colleges.
RICHARD EKMAN: Private colleges and universities have enormous amounts of private financial aid money available so that it is much more affordable than many people assume.
Lots of schools cut tuition by thousands of dollars as soon as students enroll.
EKMAN: Yet the stereotypes persist that the private colleges are only for wealthy kids. It's simply not true.
Brian O'Rourke has dealt with that stereotype a lot. He's the director of admissions and recruitment at Holy Names University -- another small college in Northern California.
BRIAN O'ROURKE: Last year I did an evening for a public high school where they broke us out into different rooms, and I literally for two hours did not have one family come into the room to hear about private schools.
This year dozens of families lined up to ask questions. O'Rourke says it's because of high school and community college counselors. A lot of them have been struggling to place students in the overloaded public system, and they're finally paying attention to small schools like his.
O'ROURKE: I'm happy to say that's making our job a little bit easier because more people know we exist now.
And getting noticed is a big first step after years of being invisible.
In San Francisco, I'm Caitlan Carroll for Marketplace