PASCO -- Enrollment is up at Columbia Basin College as students begin the winter quarter, though college officials aren't entirely sure why.
CBC had 5,228 full-time equivalent students on the first day of winter classes this week. That's 200 more than were seen on the first day of classes in September.
While many other universities and colleges would call that unusual, it's become a common trend at the Pasco-based community college.
And it's a phenomenon that's also being seen at Yakima Valley and Big Bend community colleges.
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"We have theories but we don't actually know (why)," said CBC spokesman Frank Murray.
For six years, CBC has had higher enrollment on its first day of winter classes than during fall quarters.
Some of those increases were only by a couple dozen students, but almost 350 more students showed up winter quarter 2010 compared to fall 2009. And more than 100 showed up last winter compared with the previous fall quarter.
Part of this year's increase in students can be explained by an additional 69 high school students signing up for Running Start, a program that allows them to take college-level courses toward an associate's degree. However, that doesn't explain the dozens of additional students taking basic skills and academic classes.
Winter enrollment being the peak for a institution of higher education runs counter to most enrollment trends, college and university officials said. More students tend to enroll in the fall before some students graduate early, transfer or drop out.
"It would be unusual for us to see enrollment in the spring (semester) be higher than in the fall," said Melissa O'Neil Perdue with Washington State University Tri-Cities.
Melissa Harrison, spokeswoman for Walla Walla Community College, said their enrollment also is up so far for winter quarter but it's unclear if it will surpass student counts from the fall as classes haven't started yet. Historically, though, the fall term is the time of peak enrollment.
Murray said college officials are planning to research the trend, but one theory is that high school graduates who didn't enroll for college in the fall then start to see their friends continuing their education and decide to join them.
Another theory is it could have something to do with agricultural workers having more time to go to school in the winter.
"We are a rural agricultural community," said Doug Sly, spokesman for Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake. "When you have that, you have higher enrollment (in the winter) because the ground is frozen."
His college has the equivalent of 1,700 full-time students enrolled for the winter quarter, just 67 short of how many finished in the fall, and many still are registering for classes.
But Linda Kaminski, president of Yakima Valley Community College, said that doesn't explain the trend at her school.
She said winter quarter enrollment always exceeds the previous fall's enrollment.
While there are more agricultural workers attending in the winter, that would only explain an increase in students for the college's basic skills courses, she said.
Instead, she said, Yakima Valley Community College sees enrollment increases in its other programs, particularly standard higher education classes, in winter.
Kaminski said she also doesn't have a full explanation for the trend, but she thinks it might have something to do with the large number of students needing to take pre-college level language arts and math classes.
Demand for those courses often outstrips available seats, she said, noting that 120 prospective students couldn't get in the classes they needed this fall.
But by winter, students who have taken those classes have moved on to their regular courses, freeing up space for others.
"There's not the bottleneck in the winter we have in the fall," she said.