There’s been a lot of discussion in the news about how colleges and college students are coping with the recession. The tricky thing about a recession, of course, is the dilemma of opportunity vs. affordability. A job loss suddenly provides a worker with the time to go back to school — whether to upgrade credentials for an existing career or get training for a new career and job altogether — but the income loss may make a return to school financially unworkable.

The National Association for College Admission Counseling, which wrapped up its annual conference at the end of September, released an admissions and enrollment survey it conducted among its schools. Specifically, the Association wanted to know how colleges and their students have been coping with the effects of the recession on personal and institutional finances.

Despite all the financial difficulties a recession brings, many students still appear to see higher education as the right course to pursue in a transitional economy. And colleges appear to be trying to help, by finding more financial aid to offer. Here are some interesting enrollment and financial aid details from the NACAC survey:

  • College enrollment in surveyed schools increased about 60% for the fall 2009.
  • 54% of those students were transfer students. Public colleges and colleges in the south had the highest number of transfer students (a number of southern states have a statewide policy agreement that has simplified the transfer process among the public 2-year and 4-year colleges in each state’s system).
  • So many students applied for college admission that more than 15% of the public colleges surveyed created an admissions waiting list for the first time ever!
  • 90% of this year’s college applicants also applied for financial aid.
  • Half of the public colleges suffered budget cuts, including, on average, one full person working in the admissions department.
  • Nevertheless, 74% of the colleges surveyed increased the number of students they gave school grants to, and more than half of surveyed colleges increased the amount of the school grants they offered. Every single type of surveyed school boosted financial aid — public and private colleges, large and small colleges, and colleges in every region of the country.

It looks as though many schools are trying to make up for the cuts in state education grants and the limits on Pell grants and other federal grants for college students.

Colleges that will try to help with financial aid are out there!

If you can do it without bankrupting yourself in the future, returning to school for a new credential could be a practical, valuable use of recession time, and changes to federal unemployment insurance allow you to keep your unemployment benefits while you’re in school.

Maybe the key to finding an affordable college program is to shop around the schools in your area and your state to see which ones can offer you the greatest amount in institutional (school) grants. Unlike loans, grants usually do not have to be repaid, and the right amount of financial aid at a reasonably-priced accredited college may be your ticket to coping with the recession: a higher education credential that will give you a fresh start.