The surge is continuing this fall at Pasco-Hernando Community College, with enrollment jumping about 9 percent compared with last year.
About 8,500 students are studying on a full or part-time basis at the college's four campuses, said Timothy Beard, vice president of student development and enrollment management.
"I would say, given additional physical space and instructors, we could easily have capped out at 13 or 14 percent," he said.
As the economy sags and four-year colleges turn away more students because of state funding cuts, interest in two-year schools such as PHCC has been growing sharply. Last year, the college grew by 7 percent, as Florida community colleges grappled with an unexpected influx of 50,000 extra students.
That trend may continue for some time, as community colleges pick up the slack from a strained state higher education system. The University of Florida will shrink by 4,000 students over the next four years, and freshman enrollment is frozen at the main campus of the University of South Florida. Admissions standards are rising at both schools as students compete for fewer seats.
But PHCC has earned its popularity by offering students a more economical and personalized route to college, Beard said. A full year of 30 credits costs $2,225 for in-state residents, compared with $3,990 plus on-campus living expenses at USF.
Programs in nursing and other high-demand health care fields are "bursting at the seams" at PHCC, with more than 500 applications for 240 spots, Beard said.
In the short term, that will mean some classes are filled to capacity of 25 to 30 students. Ground will be broken this fall on a new Spring Hill campus on U.S. 19, which will add seats for 2,000 to 2,500 students by the summer of 2010.
The college also plans to eventually add a campus in Wesley Chapel to its system, which now includes facilities in Brooksville and Dade City as well as the main campus in New Port Richey.
Krysten Lamorta, 21, and her 18-year-old sister, Alexandra, made a conscious decision to maximize their financial aid dollars after graduating from Central High in Hernando County.
They plan to study fashion and retail management at PHCC, perhaps transfer to a four-year school with associate's degrees, and eventually open their own clothing business in the town of their birth, Las Vegas. For them, every penny counts.
"Financially, it's a lot better for us," Alexandra Lamorta said.
Aaron Saulnier, 18, who graduated from Hernando High in Brooksville, wants to study pharmacy at the University of Florida. But first he has some work to do at PHCC, where he plans to take biology and other core courses and polish up his academic credentials.
"My (grade-point average) wasn't high enough to go to a four-year school," he explained.
Tom Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1431.