Of most concern about 2009 among community college administrators is what Karen Stout, president of Montgomery County Community College, called "almost a perfect storm." Just as more students flock back to school in the bad economy, public funding is diminishing - county and state allotments make up nearly 60 percent of MCCC's budget - thus necessitating a tuition hike "at a time when families can't afford" one.

Last year, tuition went up 2 percent, but "as the economic situation becomes more tenuous, it will be hard to keep a tuition increase that low," Stout said.

Yet keeping the doors open to all who want to enroll is essential, she said, "because we are part of the economic stimulus. When jobs come back, we will need to have people trained and ready to fill those jobs."

Applications for the spring semester are up 15 percent over last year; enrollment, 12 percent.

At Ursinus University in Collegeville, a tuition increase also is likely, probably close to 4.5 percent, said Richard DiFeliciantonio, vice president for enrollment. There, school officials are cutting spending where possible - on studies abroad, food service, maintenance and evening programs - to deal with the expected increase in requests for financial aid.

"The long-term fund-raising and endowment stuff, that's the shoe yet to drop," he said.

- Diane Mastrull