(MCT) — Attending a four-year university immediately after high school just wasn't in the cards for St. Charles resident Kathy Arseneau.
Instead, she spent two years at Elgin Community College before taking time off to save money and help her mother pay bills.
"It's hard," said Arseneau, now 26 and back to her life as a full-time student and part-time grocery employee. "Everyone worries about how they're going to pay for school. It's not fun. I'm stressed all the time on how I'm going to afford the semester."
After record-high enrollment at suburban community colleges over the last few years, numbers are falling slightly as students such as Arseneau must balance higher education with the need to earn a paycheck during continued economic uncertainty.
"There are economic incentives to go back to school, but students are up against the gun and need money today," said Mark Schneider, vice president at the Washington-based American Institutes for Research and former commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics.
A person with an associate degree is paid $8,000 more a year compared with a high school graduate, he said, and there is an unmet demand for people with associate degrees. Yet the economic realities of many students' lives mean they can't wait two years to start earning money.
Statewide, the spring 2012 community college head count is down almost 3 percent — to 370,816 from 381,582 — from the same semester last year. The number of full-time students is also down by about 4.5 percent.
Community college officials believe the trend will continue until employers start to hire and the economy fully recovers.
"Many times we see a surge when (the economy) is down," said Mary Perkins, an Elgin Community College administrator. "But because it's been down for so long, we're hearing from more and more students that it's increasingly harder to put money toward school."
Numbers at Elgin Community College swelled to a record-high 12,219 in fall 2010 and have steadily declined since then, to 11,612 this semester, according to official numbers.
Earl Dowling, associate vice president of enrollment management at west suburban College of DuPage, agreed that students might be taking fewer classes to hold down a job.
"I think people are making economic decisions about how many classes they're going to enroll (in)," Dowling said. "I think it's just a general angst about the economy."
The number of students with a full-time schedule — taking 15 credit hours, or about five classes — has dropped since 2009 at the Glen Ellyn-based junior college from 16,036 to about 15,175 in fall 2011.
According to data from the school, the total number of students is 27,186 this spring, slightly higher than the spring 2011 enrollment of 27,037, but down from spring 2010 enrollment of 27,982.
Dianne Farias, 54, of Bolingbrook, has been taking a class at a time at College of DuPage as she works toward a criminal justice degree. She said she can't afford to keep a full-time class load.
"College is getting more and more expensive," said Farias, who also works as a front desk clerk for a computer business and volunteers. "People don't have funds."
Cynthia Allen, 21, enrolled at Joliet Junior College in 2009 at a time when her parents feared job loss was imminent. The price tag for a four-year university was too much for an uncertain time.
Three years later, the Frankfort resident is ready to graduate from the junior college with an associate degree and move on to Lewis University to study criminal justice. Her mother eventually did lose her job as an assistant manager at a home improvement store, and Allen has been able to pay for college herself so far.
"In the long run, I saved thousands upon thousands of dollars," Allen said. "It was cheaper to go here than to a university."
She said she isn't alone. Many of her classmates postponed the four-year university expense and attended a local and cheaper community college. She's also seen plenty of older adults retooling to stay competitive in the job market.
Dustin Podkulski, 30, returned to Joliet Junior College after about 10 years to finish his associate degree. He originally left college for a job at a grocery and worked his way up to assistant grocery manager, a job paying $19 an hour.
"Now I'm barely scraping by," said Podkulski, of New Lenox. "So I decided to come back here and finish my degree."
But the real impetus was the uncertain economy and a threat of downsizing. He hopes the criminal justice degree can get him a better, more sustainable job.
"It kind of made me feel uncomfortable because if everything closes down, what I am going to do?" he said.
He said the cost was a small fraction compared with other schools, and he enjoys the small classes (20-person maximum class size). He said the instructors either work in the field or recently retired.
"It's not just what's in the book," he said.
The tough economy and ever-changing needs of prospective students have forced community college officials to make adding services and programs a priority.
The College of DuPage, for example, has added 30 new certificate programs and 10 new degree programs since 2009 because "the days when persons in the admissions and enrollment areas could be passive about enrolling students" are over, Dowling said.
McHenry County College officials are hopeful new programs, including robotics, graphics arts and weekend nursing courses, will increase enrollment next fall.
At Elgin Community College, Perkins said, "We're really trying to monitor employment trends and adjust our academic programs accordingly."
Tribune reporters Jim Jaworski, Jennifer Delgado, Kate Thayer, Michelle Manchir and Mary Owen contributed.