Nearly 600,000 Americans lost their jobs this past month, pushing the nation's unemployment rate to 7.6 percent. But not all of those laid-off workers are sitting at home, browsing the want ads and waiting for the phone to ring. Thousands are heading back to school, making public colleges and universities among the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal U.S. economy.

At a time when many Americans have had their work hours reduced, or even lost their jobs, Sherian Huddleston is working overtime. As vice provost at Middle Tennessee State University, Huddleston oversees the registration of new students. MTSU's 22,000-plus population grew by more than 800 students this semester - an increase of nearly 4 percent over last spring's registration. Some American universities are reporting double-digit growth in student registrations.

Huddleston says that seeing enrollments rise in a failing economy is not unexpected.

"When people are out of jobs," she points out, "that's when they look at 'What else can I do?' 'What other career can I follow?' and they will oftentimes go to school or return to school if they have not previously completed their degree."

From a dead-end job to a better career

Matthew Andrews is one of those returning students. He moved to Tennessee from California about a year ago. He says it was a shock, and a wake-up call, when the only work he could find was a low-paying restaurant job.

"And I just said, 'I'm 28 years old. What am I doing with my life?' Yah know? So that's kinda what brought me here to MTSU."

Andrews says you have to have an education to get ahead.

Laurisa Spears returned to school in 2006 when she realized her banking job offered little chance for advancement. Now, many of her former coworkers are about to be laid off, and she says some have asked her about her back-to-school experience.

"A few of them wanted to know, 'Was it hard to reapply?' and, you know, 'What was it like to come up and be with college kids?' Things like that," she says.

Older, returning students like Andrews and Spears aren't the only ones bumping up enrollment at Middle Tennessee State. Vice Provost Huddleston says she's also seeing an increase in student transfers.

"Students who previously went out of state to more expensive schools, or even in state to more expensive, maybe private schools, due to the economy those students may be transferring to public schools, the state schools, to take advantage of the lower cost of attending," she explains.

New students are a mixed blessing

So while the recession is driving students back to school, not every university appears to be benefiting equally from the trend. Barmak Nassirian, with the American Association of Collegiate Registrars, says both public and private universities are worried about students stampeding to state schools.

"That obviously could cause tremendous disruption at private institutions that presumably could wind up with seats that go empty," Nassirian says. "And on the other hand, of course, surging demand in the public sector could result in overcrowding, first of all, and secondly, it could push some students out."

He adds that while state colleges and universities would have a hard time absorbing so many new students in the best of times, the recession means most public schools will be trying to accommodate larger classes on dramatically smaller budgets.

"All the various participants in the system are subject to the same economic cycle. The states are having a hard time. Endowments are having a hard time. Philanthropy is having a hard time. It is not just families who are having a hard time."

The good news, according to Nassirian, is that in spite of the economic downturn, most students will be able to find the money they need to go - or stay - in school. Funding is tighter, but scholarships, grants and loans are still available.

"I can't guarantee that you can go to the college of your choice, regardless of cost. But access to college is still workable for virtually all students in the U.S. if they do a little bit of homework."

It will be mid-summer before most universities know exactly how many students are going to show up on campus in the fall.