AUSTIN (AP) – Community college enrollment in Texas surged 12.2 percent from 2008 to 2009, a trend officials expect to continue even as educators worry whether funding levels during a state budget crunch can support the growth.

Citing the most recent state-certified statistics, the Austin American-Statesman reported Thursday that the enrollment increase at two-year schools was nearly three times the growth at four-year institutions. Community and technical colleges had 692,845 students compared to 532,226 at public universities, which saw an increase of 4.5 percent.

Graduation and retention rates were markedly lower at two-year schools, where nearly half the students were not ready for college-level work in one or more areas.

State budget problems could mean significant cuts and higher tuition rates for community colleges, where costs are considerably lower than four-year schools.

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board expects community college enrollment to continue a rapid rise because of varied academic offerings, open admissions policies and much more palatable tuition rates. But even school leaders acknowledge that financial challenges loom.

A state budget shortfall that could reach $20 billion is forcing agencies, including community college districts, to propose 10 percent cuts in their financial planning.

Austin Community College President Stephen Kinslow said he hopes to avoid layoffs and reductions in student-support services by cutting back on technology and capital spending. The college would need voter approval to raise property taxes and isn’t planning to pursue that, he said.

“I think it’s clear that tuition will have to be increased,” Kinslow said.

Community colleges also face challenges in the classroom because only about 30 percent of those who enroll in two-year schools earn a degree or certificate within six years, according to state figures. The six-year graduation rate at public four-year universities in Texas is almost twice that.

Two-year schools also have a harder time keeping students for the second year. About 67 percent of community college students continue after the first year compared to 88 percent at four-year schools.

A four-year school not only offers a better statistical shot at earning a degree but also the chance to absorb broader, life-enriching exposure to the arts, economic issues, global affairs and so forth, said Lisa Fielder, executive director of College Forward, an Austin-based nonprofit that helps low-income students apply to college, obtain financial aid and stay enrolled.

But David Gardner, deputy commissioner of the Higher Education Coordinating Board, said booming enrollment figures at community colleges are a good thing. He said two-year schools are attractive because of cost and access. Moreover, community colleges serve a wide demographic, including working adults, students with families and part-time students, he said.

If budget problems persist, though, community colleges could be forced to make painful cuts to faculty and critical support services.

“We’re being asked to do a great deal more with a great deal less,” Austin Community College’s Kinslow said. “It’s not a good recipe for success and for meeting the state’s goal of ensuring a qualified work force.”

(© Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)