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Area colleges report record enrollment jumps

MANATEE — Local colleges are reporting record leaps in enrollment as high school grads flock to continue their education, and others try to counter the poor economy by returning to school.

Perhaps that’s why Manatee and Sarasota counties seem to be bucking a statewide trend showing fewer high-school graduates plan to continue their education, according to data from the Florida Department of Education.

In Manatee, the number of high school graduates who expected to continue their education jumped from 64.07 percent in 2007-08 to 66.30 percent in 2008-09; Sarasota’s percentage edged up from 68.57 to 68.60, the latest data from the department showed.

Statewide, the percentage of high school graduates intending to continue their education declined from 73.86 percent to 71.82 percent over the same period, data showed.

Locally, State College of Florida Manatee-Sarasota reported a 38 percent enrollment increase due in part to a stagnant economy, according to Lars A. Hafner, president of SCF.

Between 2006 and 2009, its enrollment leapt from 8,800 to a record 12,026 students.

“The economy has a lot to do with it, when the economy is struggling, people tend to go back to college” to retool or to pursue other career endeavors, Hafner said.

“They’re coming to us for both two-year and four-year degrees,” he said. Similarly, enrollment at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee has set new records, jumping from 3,546 in 2006-07 to 4,409 in 2009-10, according to USF officials.

Historically, such increases during a recession are not uncommon, said Julie Ragans, USF’s assistant director of recruitment.

“We have observed an increase in students who have moved away to college, and have decided to return to our area to live at home and attend school locally, many for financial reasons,” she said. “Without job possibilities, many people are coming back to further their education or re-train for other careers.”

However, the public university expected increases in any case, she said.

“Our south Sarasota County location has increased from only 66 students per semester to over 500, and with the opening of our new campus in North Port, we expect that number to increase even further,” she said.

USF also plans to expand its campus along U.S. 41, and to add freshmen and sophomores to its mostly junior and senior student body, she added.

A community that strongly supports education and excellent K-12 programming may explain why local graduates are bucking statewide trends when it come to continuing their education, she said.

“Students in our area attend high schools that teach the importance of continuing on with higher education and have access to a quality university experience in their own backyard, so it’s only natural that the number who stay and take advantage of that resource is increasing,” Ragans said.

New College of Florida, a public liberal arts college, admitted 823 students last year, but will intentionally whittle that number down to 800 or 820 this year in order to maintain its ratio of 10 or 11 students per faculty member, said Jake Hartvigsen, director of public affairs.

“Our marketing efforts did a good job, our national rankings did so well, we were able to attract a lot of students,” said Hartvigsen. “There was a little bit of an economic factor at work last year, as well.”

Guidance counselors and career and academic advisers work as teams to provide students with career exploration, and to help them navigate the path to acceptance into the post-secondary institution that best meets their goals, said Shirley Hurley, the Manatee School District coordinator of guidance services.

“Most of the high schools, maybe all of them, have a career fair on campus to help students learn about careers in our community with the hope that they will get a post-high school degree and come back to be leaders in Manatee County,” she said.