Suffolk County Community College is facing a growing decline in full-time students that will create a $4.8 million shortfall in next year's budget, officials said.
The drop comes after years of record enrollment growth, spurred by its affordability amid the recession.
College president Shaun MacKay noted that last year's graduating class was the largest in history.
"The trends in the college's enrollment represents a leveling off, not a decline," he said.
School officials attributed the enrollment drop to more students attending part-time as employment picks up. They also say the pool of graduating high school seniors in Suffolk -- similar to national trends -- is shrinking.
The State Department of Education projects the number of graduating Suffolk seniors to drop from 19,190 this year to 19,084 in 2013 and 18,770 in 2014.
The college's enrollment hit a high of 26,257 full- and part-time students last fall.
"The enrollment growth that occurred in the past decade was unsustainable," said Gail Vizzini, college finance vice president.
But while enrollment has peaked, Vizzini warned, "The amount of state base aid has plummeted."
Legis. Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai), education committee chair, said the college is focused on providing the skills students need most, like programs in nursing, culinary arts and technology, so they can find good jobs and spur economic development.
While the college anticipated enrollment growth of 3 percent last year, the number of full-time equivalent students dropped by 2.3 percent, officials said. In determining state aid, a full-time equivalent student is based on 30 credits taken per year.
This school year, officials forecast a 1.5 percent full-time equivalent enrollment decline. The continuing 2.3 percent drop is expected to result in an additional revenue loss of $1.375 million.
The college has predicted another 2.5 percent enrollment drop next school year.
Due to the revenue losses and higher overall costs, the college faces a total shortfall of $9.4 million in 2013-14.
Besides full-time enrollment, officials say the budget gap includes $3.7 million in salary increases in the coming year, $2.4 million in higher pension costs, and $300,000 in additional health insurance expenses.
The current budget is $193.7 million, with annual tuition for full-time students set at $3,990.