Enrollment is up at community colleges across Washington, reflecting a pattern that state college officials have witnessed every time the economy tanks.

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Enrollment is up at community colleges across Washington, reflecting a pattern that state college officials have witnessed every time the economy tanks.

“When the economy goes down and jobs are harder to find, students go back to college,” said Janelle Runyon, spokeswoman for the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.

Washington’s boom in community-college enrollment began this past summer and hasn’t let up this fall, said Runyon and representatives of local community colleges.

Nearly a half-million students are enrolled at the state’s 34 community and technical colleges each year, including students who are simply taking enrichment courses. The number of full-time equivalent students statewide — those taking classes for credit — was 136,199 in the 2007-08 academic year.

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Pierce College’s Puyallup campus reports a 28 percent increase in its total head count this fall, compared to fall 2007. Wenatchee Valley College is seeing an increase of more than 11 percent. Peninsula College in Port Angeles reports a 13 percent increase. And Clover Park Technical College in Lakewood had a 351 percent increase over last fall — from 92 to 415 students.

National figures mirror Washington state.

Preliminary reports from community colleges across the nation, which had overall enrollment of 11.5 million last year, show summer enrollments were up and that trend is expected to continue this fall, according to Norma Kent, a spokeswoman for the American Association of Community Colleges.

Washington state’s largest community college system, Seattle Community Colleges with four campuses, has seen its enrollment jump by about 1,000 full-time equivalent students. That’s an 8.2 percent increase over the previous fall and officials expect the number to continue to climb by as much as 5 percent as students enter programs later in the quarter.

“This is one of the strongest starts that we’ve ever seen,” said Carin Weiss, SCC vice chancellor for education planning and distance learning. “We’re seeing growth in all areas.”

The two biggest growth areas in the SCC system of 13,126 full-time equivalents are online courses and worker retraining. Fall enrollment of students training for a new career is up 51 percent in the Seattle system.

“That underscores our relationship to the economy,” Weiss said.

She said the increase in online students probably has a lot to do with the cost of gas. The college system polled its online students informally this past summer and many gave gas prices as their main influence.

Most online students take a mixture of classes on campus and online, so they don’t have to drive to school every day and have more flexibility for work.

What Weiss calls the system’s destination programs — culinary arts, computer technology and health care — attract a steady stream of students in good economic times and bad. But other enrollment goes up and down on a regular basis.

“We spent many years trying to come up with an equation to explain our enrollment,” Weiss said, but only part of the equation is scientific.

Because enrollment is so difficult to predict, it can complicate state funding for community colleges. Runyon of the state board hopes lawmakers will recognize that community colleges are part of the solution during an economic downturn and will find money to add classes and support more enrollment.

“When times are tough, that’s when students need us the most,” Runyon said.

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