Community college enrollment has started to decline, signaling a possible end to the recession-fueled boom that sent large numbers of local job-seekers back to classrooms.
Enrollment statewide began leveling off last year, but area colleges are now seeing significant dips in their fall term head counts.
The number of students enrolled so far this fall is down 4.4 percent at Hillsborough Community College and 2.5 percent at St. Petersburg College. Pasco-Hernando Community College is seeing an even steeper decline — about 8 percent.
Those decreases follow explosive growth — double-digit percentages in some years — at all three colleges in recent years.
College officials and others offer a variety of explanations for the declines, which show up in both the number of students and the number of credit hours being taken:
Prospective students must work a variety of part-time jobs, leaving little time for classes. The people who returned to college at the height of the recession have completed their programs. Changes to federal financial aid regulations have reduced awards for certain students.
"We think it has a lot to do with students just having to work. That's why they're taking fewer credit hours," said Pat Rinard, St. Petersburg College's associate vice president for enrollment management. "They're piecing together work just to make ends meet."
Those jobs may not be of the high-paying variety, either. At Valencia College in Orlando, for instance, officials attribute a slight drop-off in enrollment to hiring by theme parks.
At Brevard College, where fall enrollment is off by 2.4 percent from last year, officials say the long-planned shutdown of the shuttle program sent many space industry workers back to school in recent years. Now those students have wrapped up their studies, which might account for the decline, said spokesman John Glisch.
Gary Sligh, president of the Association of Florida Colleges, said that people also may be staying out of school because they are finding decent-paying jobs — or, at least, think they can.
"We usually see this when there's a perception that the economy is up," said Sligh, who saw a roughly 5 percent enrollment dip at his Lake-Sumter Community College.
The state Department of Education has not yet collected the fall term student enrollment counts, but Sligh said he has heard nearly every college is seeing small declines. Polk State College was one exception, reporting a nearly 5 percent increase in enrollment.
State universities don't appear to be experiencing similar population declines this fall. The University of South Florida and the University of Florida are seeing slight increases in their total student populations. The University of Central Florida's enrollment has increased by 2 percent, inching past the 60,000-student mark for the first time in its history.
Community college officials point to the nature of their population, which is made up of many part-time students who must balance work and school. Enrollment tends to spike during bad economies as the jobless and underemployed search for skills that can get them good jobs in stable fields.
"Students vote with their feet when it comes to us," Sligh said. "If they're not working, and they can find the funds to come, they're going to do it."
Total enrollment at the state's 28 community colleges in 2011-2012 was 855,541, a 5 percent increase from 2007-2008. An even more telling measure of the growth is "full-time equivalency," the figure that reflects the number of credit hours being taken. That number went up more than 20 percent between 2007 and 2011.
Both statewide figures declined slightly between 2010 and 2011.
Tuition at colleges went up by as much as 8 percent this year. And paying for school isn't getting easier for many students.
In explaining the enrollment decline, officials also cite recent changes to the federal need-based Pell grants, an especially critical source of aid for community college students. Nationwide, roughly half of community college students receive Pell grants, according to the Association of Community College Trustees.
The U.S. Department of Education reduced the duration of students' lifetime eligibility for the grants from 18 to 12 full-time semesters, meaning a student who racks up credits, gets a job, then decides to get into another line of work may have less available federal assistance.
At Pasco-Hernando Community College, for instance, many students enroll in a specific career track, such as nursing, after having attended other schools, noted spokeswoman Lucy Miller.
Congress also has reduced the income threshold for the maximum $5,500 Pell grant from $30,000 to $23,000, which means an estimated 300,000 students will get less money this year, according to calculations by the Association of Community College Trustees. And students can no longer use Pell for summer courses.
The enrollment declines thus far are not significant enough to force officials to make spending reductions, such as canceling classes.
At Hillsborough Community College, the opening day head count was 27,298, a 4.4 percent decrease from last year's opening day. But enrollment is ongoing, and officials believe the numbers will pick up.
"If we were talking double-digits, that would be a whole different scenario," said Ashley Carl, HCC's spokeswoman.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3374.