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Colleges cap tuition hikes to curb rising costs

Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Laura Ralich, 22, of Regent Square (left) talks with her supervisor, Emilee Criner, an international interior design Associate for IKM, a Pittsburgh-based architecture firm, on Tuesday, August 7, 2012 in PPG Place, Downtown. Ralich is in a three-year bachelor’s degree program in interior architecture at Chatham University.

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Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2012, 12:04 a.m.

Cutting a year from her undergraduate degree program will save Chatham University student Laura Ralich about $40,000, big money for any potentially debt-strapped collegian.

Ralich, 22, of Aliquippa expects to graduate in spring from Chatham's accelerated three-year program in interior architecture. She hopes to apply the time and money she saves toward a master's degree in architecture.

“You learn so much in such a short amount of time. You end up pulling out your hair at some point, but it's worth it,” she said during a break from her summer internship at IKM, a Downtown architecture, planning and design company.

Chatham's program is one of many that schools offer to attract students and make college more affordable. Accelerated programs follow a decade of rising tuition and fees that drove up costs from 52 to 116 percent at 19 colleges in Western Pennsylvania.

Increasing student debt loads and high unemployment caused many colleges to limit tuition increases this year.

Chatham's website suggests the $40,000 Ralich will save covers a year of tuition, fees and room and board.

At Duquesne University, officials halved the tuition and fees for students in its School of Education, for a four-year savings of $60,000.

Paul-James Cukanna, Duquesne's associate provost for enrollment management, said officials noticed a troubling decline in enrollment in that school several years ago. Students were shying away from teaching careers because financially strapped public schools across the nation began furloughing teachers during the economic downturn.

Duquesne officials acted when 60 students enrolled last year, instead of the typical 100 freshmen in Education.

“Teaching, for us, is a profession we want to support. ... It's all under the aegis of mission,” said professor Olga Welch, dean of the School of Education.

Duquesne offered incoming education majors a 50 percent reduction in tuition and fees for four years, calling it a scholarship. So far, it's working.

Sophie White, 18, of Fairfax, Va., is among 144 freshmen who will attend Duquesne this fall under that program. Accepted at Duquesne, George Mason University, the University of Pittsburgh and Ohio State University, she chose Duquesne when she learned about the reduced tuition and fees.

“I thought I would get some kind of scholarship, but I didn't know about this when I applied,” she said. “I was so happy to get it. I wouldn't be able to go to Duquesne if I hadn't gotten it.”

In Pennsylvania, with 93 private and 18 public colleges and universities, the pressure to rein in costs is mounting.

The 18 state-owned or state-related universities weathered reductions of up to 20 percent in state subsidies last year. Some schools raised tuition in 2011-12 by as much as 9 percent to make up for state cutbacks. This year, state lawmakers agreed to maintain subsidies at last year's level if the universities would limit tuition increases to no more than the 3.2 percent increase in the cost of living.

Pitt and Penn State capped increases at 2.8 and 2.9 percent, respectively, and the board of governors for the 14 universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education approved a 3 percent tuition increase for the 2012-13 academic year.

Temple University in Philadelphia, with enrollment of 40,000, froze base tuition and fees at last year's figure — $13,596 and started an $8 million scholarship fund fueled by cuts in operating costs.

“The board and leadership felt very strongly that Temple was positioned to become a leader in showing how colleges can be cost-effective and offer a great education,” said university spokesman Ray Betzner.

In Western Pennsylvania, such sentiment permeated discussions at Seton Hill University, said university spokeswoman Kary Coleman Hazen. At 2.5 percent, the private college in Greensburg had the smallest percentage increase of any school in the region.

Hazen said Seton Hill promotes accelerated programs that enable high school students in 52 schools to earn up to 30 credits, a year's worth of college academics. High school students who complete such advanced-level classes can pay a fee of $220 per class and apply for university credit.

“Parents are certainly interested in the financial and academic benefits,” said Terrence DePasquale, dean of Seton Hill's graduate and external programs. “We know a family can save a semester or a year of tuition through the program.”

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or

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