Economy changing students’ minds as many switch schools, save money

Harper College sophomore Amar Bhatia, center, asks classmate Jason Whiston, right, a question during their Financial Accounting Fundamentals class at Harper College in Palatine, Illinois, Wednesday, September 9, 2009. Bhatia transferred to Harper from Indiana University last year because both of his parents lost their jobs and they could no longer afford the out-of-state tuition.

CHICAGO – When Amar Bhatia was weighing his postsecondary options, he chose Indiana University over DePaul University because DePaul’s downtown Chicago campus was too close to Mom and Dad.

Now, as a sophomore, he’s even closer – at Harper Community College, a five-minute drive from his Palatine, Ill., home. “It’s like being a senior all over again,” said the 2008 Fremd High School graduate.

Bhatia, 19, is part of a growing pool of students called “reverse transfers.” Rather than use community colleges as a launching pad, these young adults are going the other way.

As the recession grinds on, prestige has taken a back seat to affordability.

Sky-rocketing university tuition, along with more reluctance to take on huge loans (especially if grades are less than stellar or your major is “undecided”) has spurred students to reconsider an alternative they once dismissed.

Although recent statistics aren’t available, officials say there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest this group has contributed to the overall record enrollments currently being seen at community colleges nationwide.

“This is a direct response to last fall when the economy imploded,” explained Steve Morse, spokesman of the Illinois Community College Board, referring to the rise in “reverse-transfers.”

Along with Harper, a number of other area community colleges – Oakton in Des Plaines, Moraine Valley in Palos Hills, Prairie State in Chicago Heights and Joliet – all report an uptick in students making a U-turn.

Oakton officials said this semester’s crop of students have transferred from some highly selective schools, including University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (25 students) and Northwestern University (15).

Finances certainly figured heavily into Bhatia’s decision not to return to Indiana, with its picturesque limestone buildings, Big 10 sports teams and vibrant campus life.

The business major finished freshman year with a solid B average – good, but not good enough to qualify for scholarships.

Then, both his parents lost jobs – his mom was at Allstate Insurance, his dad, a self-employed consultant, hadn’t snagged a new project in months.

Ultimately, they left the choice up to him. But weighing the annual costs ($40,000 for out-of-state tuition and room and board vs. $3,100) pushed him to Harper, where enrollment among 19- to 24-year-olds jumped 5.2 percent this semester.

Back in high school, the kids who stayed close to home weren’t really in his crowd, Bhatia said. “But now I’d call it one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”

Community colleges have long been seen as the last resort for those with limited resources – whether academic or financial.

The downturn, though, has chipped away at the stigma. Last year, 70 percent of high schools reported an increase in the number of students who jettisoned their “dream schools” for more budget-conscious choices, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

Still, those negative perceptions played heavily in Tom Crivellone’s choice of McKendree College, just east of St. Louis.

His teachers at Richards High School, where he ranked 14th out of 470, told him he would be wasting his time at Moraine Valley Community College, where he’s currently a sophomore.

“Maybe that would be true if I knew what I wanted to do,” said the 20-year-old, “but I didn’t.”

Crivellone was drawn to McKendree by the history (it’s the oldest college in the state), a place on the track team and a $7,000 scholarship. But when he arrived in the fall of 2008, not everything was “the paradise” he envisioned.

When a part-time job didn’t materialize, the Oak Lawn, Ill., resident pulled the plug after winter break, abruptly jumping to Moraine Valley. The $29,000 annual tab at McKendree – which he was primarily footing himself – seemed extravagant compared with $1,700 a semester (books included) in his own backyard.

“Instead of people looking down at me, they were telling me how smart I am,” said Crivellone, who still owes $2,500 from his first semester at McKendree. (When his father lost his marketing job a few months later, the son felt even smarter.)

“Sure, there are things I miss about being on a campus – like waking up at 8:50 for a 9 a.m. class … but it’s not worth 20 grand a year.”

It’s not unusual for students to flock to community colleges when the economy sours. However, the current unprecedented demand comes at the same time states are slashing financial aid, according to a report released Thursday by the Education Policy Center at the University of Alabama.

Of 43 states that responded to the study, 30 predicted cuts next year in their student aid programs.

But the switch from four-year to two-year schools isn’t always about money, sometimes it can be prompted by other issues.

For Ryan Derrick, his struggles at Southern Illinois University started with academics. The lively social scene provided too much of a distraction, explained the 2007 Rich East High School graduate. Then, a car accident caused the biology major to fall even further behind in his studies.

“I needed a fresh start,” he explained. Derrick sheepishly returned home to Matteson, Ill., registering at Prairie State College, where, unexpectedly, he found the atmosphere more conducive to learning.

At SIU, a typical lecture class held 300 or more students. But now, most of his classes are limited to 30 students, making it easier to ask questions. “It’s more personal … you’re not just another face.”

Beyond size, classes are almost always taught by faculty, not teaching assistants, and have turned out to be more rigorous than expected, Crivellone said. “There’s probably a difference when you get to higher-level courses, but in your first two years … it’s all sort of the same.”

Even though Crivellone, Bhatia and Derrick are happy with their decisions, they all plan on returning to a traditional university. With various offerings available today, online classes, satellite campuses, they see their current stints as just another option in the post-secondary marketplace.

“In high school, it might be looked down upon … but not anymore,” Derrick said. “Everyone knows that no matter which path you choose, you’re still trying to move forward.

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