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Census: College enrollment fell nationally for second straight year

College enrollment nationally dropped in 2013 for the second year in a row, with the starkest declines seen at community colleges, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report released Wednesday.

Two-year college enrollment fell 9.6 percent, while four-year college enrollment rose 1.2 percent, according to the report.

The cumulative, two-year decrease of 930,000 college students in 2012 and 2013 was larger than any dip in college enrollment before the recent recession. The drop-off in the number of people attending college during those two years followed a period of expansion between 2006 and 2011, when college enrollment grew by 3.2 million, census officials said.

"This level of growth exceeded the total enrollment increase of the previous 10 years combined," said Kurt Bauman, chief of the Census Bureau's Education and Social Stratification Branch. Between 1996 and 2006, college enrollment grew by 2 million, Bauman said.

In 2013, there were 19.5 million college students nationally: 10.5 million in four-year colleges, 5.3 million in two-year colleges and 3.7 million in graduate schools.

The data were collected as part of an October school enrollment supplement to the Census Bureau's 2013 Current Population survey.

Overall, enrollment at Long Island colleges has held steady. Declines at some schools have been offset by growth at others.

"The competition among the colleges is pretty severe," said Farmingdale State College President Hubert Keen, who chairs the Long Island Regional Advisory Council on Higher Education, LIRACHE, a consortium of 18 colleges in Nassau and Suffolk counties, Queens and Brooklyn.

College administrators have said it has become increasingly difficult to attract and retain quality students without offering significant financial aid.

Tuition-dependent private colleges are particularly vulnerable during periods of declining enrollment, experts and college officials have said.

Keen said Long Island's demographics are unfavorable for all the colleges because of declines in the number of students here in kindergarten through 12th grade -- many of whom historically have left for schools upstate or out-of-state. During the recession, however, the colleges saw an increase in students returning to higher education -- some after job layoffs, for instance -- and many young people just out of high school also stayed to live with their parents while attending local two- and four-year institutions, he said.

Nassau Community College, in Garden City, has seen a 1.6 decline in freshman enrollment, although that drop has been significantly deeper for students who have attended the college for a semester or more, Acting President Kenneth Saunders said.

"We are in the process of analyzing what might be causing this problem of retention and exploring what college policies might be modified to encourage students to persist and graduate," Saunders said.

Student registrations at Suffolk County Community College this fall have been "slightly down," said Christopher Adams, vice president for student affairs.

"The economy has gotten a little better, so you're going to have fewer students," Adams said.

The school, which has campuses in Brentwood, Riverhead and Selden, ran two additional weeks of advertising on local radio stations and stayed open on the weekends so prospective students had every opportunity to enroll, he said.

Enrollment in online classes, however, jumped 9 percent. The college plans to add more online, weekend, early morning and evening classes in an effort to be flexible for students who have jobs.

"We need to look at other areas of recruitment," Adams said.

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