March 3, 2009 — -- 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.
'Affordable and Closer to Home'
"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.
At Wor-Wic Community College in Salisbury, Md., where the marketing slogan is "Stay Here…Go Anywhere," enrollment is up 15 percent since last spring, making it the fastest growing community college in the state.
The biggest jump has been in the number of freshman, like Parks, who started out at four- year colleges, according to president Ray Hoy. At $2,600 a year, Wor-Wic is a bargain and 48 percent of all its students are on financial aid.
"For the first time we are seeing many students who made a commitment to a four-year-college, made a deposit and then sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when their parents were losing college savings and their 401(k) plans, they had to reevaluate their personal situations," he told ABCNews.com.
"They decided to come home and go to their community college, and then, after two years, go on to the college of their choice," said Hoy.
The small college -- with 3,400 students -- is also catering to adults hoping to brush up their resumes or learn new skills sets. They are drawn in record numbers to classes in technology, nursing, radiology and business management. And at non-training programs, classes in truck driving, phlebotomy and geriatric nursing are thriving.
"People are losing their jobs or retrenching," said Hoy. "A lot of people who have jobs want to make sure they are indispensable to their employers and are taking additional classes. If a company is cutting back, you want the skill set you need to keep you and let someone else go."
Melissa David, 35, was a successful real estate agent in Parkersburg, Md., when the housing and mortgage crisis hit. She had always dreamed of going into medicine, and with a nursing shortage looming, she decided to go back to school.
"Not a day goes by when I don't open a newspaper and see an ad for something in the health-care field," said David, whose 7-year-old son competes with her to "get straight A's."
"With the economy being as it is, it was obvious that the real estate market was slowing down and I had been thinking about going back and [getting] an education," she told ABCNews.com. "If ever I was going to go back to school, now was a good time to do it."
David, who got a generous amount of financial aid, said the work at Wor-Wic is "really tough" but that it's "an exceptional program." She hopes to go on to get her R.N degree at a four-year college after two years.
College Costs Escalating
But community colleges, like their four-year counterparts, are struggling with a steady increase in the number of college students nationwide and escalating costs.
"It's an exciting time, but we're not getting any more money to pay for new students," said Hoy, who only budgeted for an 8 percent rather than a 15 percent increase in student enrollment. And tuition only covers "40 cents on the dollar."
"Unfortunately, we always grow at the wrong time," said Hoy. "It's good for students, but our funding base is state and local tax dollars. When the economy is bad and tax revenues are down, they need to cut us and hold us back."
To accommodate more students, the college will see bigger classes and use adjunct instructors rather than full-time professors. "What a challenge," he said.
The private colleges, who have traditionally competed with the nation's large public universities, are now paying attention to the community colleges, according to the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.
To keep student costs lower, 92 percent of all these institutions have increased financial assistance, according to association spokesman Tony Pals.
"We have been very aggressive in making sure they can increase student aid," Pals told ABCNews.com, emphasizing the "value" of a four-year college that other studies show students who attend four-year colleges are more likely to excel and eventually graduate.
Some private colleges are also offering innovative ways to cut costs. This fall, at Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y., students will be able to cut their costs by getting a degree in three years instead of four, saving more than $40,000 on the eventual diploma.
Still, Hartwick's total price tag next year will be 3.9 percent higher -- at $41,550, an amount many in this new economy will not be able to afford.
William "Stuart" Mills dreams of one day getting his bachelor's degree in social work or communications at a four-year college. But for now, with four children, he says community college fits the bill nicely.
At 34, Mills always regretted that he had dropped out of high school. Without an education, he was relegated to manual labor, in construction, and automotive and restaurant work.
"I was expressing to my oldest son the importance of graduating when he was 12 or 13 and it came back to bite me in the rear end," Mills told ABCNews.com.
A little more than a year ago, he completed an external diploma program. Now, he will be the first in his family to attend college and has enrolled in the general studies program at Wor-Wic.
Disabled since 2000 with a back injury, he supports his family on a limited income.
"I am tired of saying to my kids, 'You can't get that $50 pair of shoes,'" he said. He hopes the associate's degree will eventually lead to a bachelor's degree at a four-year college.
"I am thankful for the opportunity in my mid-30s and to be in school and I think my wife is proud of me," Mills said. "But there are a lot of obstacles in my way between now and then. I had to skip class yesterday because my son broke his leg and my wife is ill and starts chemotherapy soon."
"But my instructors are a great bunch of people and they've been really supportive," he said. "I have a lot of optimism as far as my education and prospects of getting a job."