California college freshman Stephanie Parks dreamed of attending an expensive, private four-year college with an annual price tag of $50,000, but her parents made her settle for Sonoma State, "a cheaper alternative at one-third the cost," she said.
But when the recession hit colleges hard at the end of last year, Parks was astounded to learn she could only be guaranteed enrollment in one two-credit course for the spring semester.
"I couldn't get any classes," she told ABCNews.com. "There were budget cuts and teachers were laid off left and right. All they could offer me was a workout class, and it was not even anything that counted for anything. It was really bad."
Fed up, Parks enrolled at Foothill, a community college in Mountainview, instead of paying the $15,000 a year at Sonoma State, a public college. She now carries an 18-credit course load for a little more than $1,200 a year.
In two years, Parks will have an associate's degree and with what she calls "great transfer arrangements," she will be able to eventually graduate from a four-year college.
"For our generation the competition to get into college is huge," said the 19-year-old. "Getting in where you want is hard enough, and not being able to pay is even worse. It was a better choice to go home to mom and dad and save some money and see where I really fit in."
Parks is one of thousands of new students who are flocking to the nation's community colleges during what some economists are predicting will be a long recession.
These two-year schools are reporting unprecedented spring-term enrollments, driven by students seeking better bargains and laid-off workers looking for new job skills.
More than 3.6 million Americans have lost their jobs since the recession started at the end of 2007, with more than half of those layoffs coming in the last three months. With a national unemployment rate at 7.6 percent and jobs in nearly every sector except health care drying up, the community colleges are a cost-effective way to reinvent the resume in a changing economic landscape.
Parks, who is a communications major, is watching her parents' careers carefully, thinking she might go into the health-care field like her stepfather, rather than technology like her mother.
"My mom is in a techie and I see her job's on the edge -- there are always layoffs," said Parks. "My stepdad is always steady. I have to consider what's best for me in this economy."
Although final figures are not in, community colleges from New Hampshire to California are anecdotally reporting jumps in their enrollment since spring of last year of 4 percent to 19 percent, according to The Associated Press.
Nationwide, the average annual cost of community college is $2,402, compared to $6,585 at in-state public four-year schools, according to the College Board. Average tuition and fees for private four-year schools is $25,143.
"I was going to a much larger school out of state and paying $45,000 a year to go there," straight-A business major Elizabeth Leone says in an ad for the New Hampshire Technical Institute. "I am getting a better experience here …and it's more affordable and closer to home."
Delaware Technical & Community Colleges' Georgetown campus has seen a 6.8 percent rise. And in New York, Ulster County Community College has seen its enrollment swell by 15.5 percent.