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Tuition-free California University program helps seniors get ahead

| Sunday, July 16, 2017, 11:00 p.m.
Jim Ference | The Valley Independent
An exterior view of the new Convocation Center at California University of Pennsylvania.

Karla DeJesus couldn't believe her ears when a friend told her about the free college tuition program at California University of Pennsylvania.

DeJesus, 60, had gone back to school and earned a bachelor's degree after retiring from state government several years ago. In the interim, she had landed a second career in radio as a producer on a small Christian station in central Pennsylvania.

Buoyed by her new-found confidence, DeJesus set out to earn a masters' degree. But cost was a hurdle for the Harrisburg woman. Most of the programs she looked at cost at least $30,000 a year.

But one university tucked in a river valley 200 miles from DeJesus' home offered free tuition to any Pennsylvania resident 60 or older. And better yet, the program DeJesus had set her heart on — a master of arts in social science and conflict resolution — was available entirely online.

“It just sounded too good to be true,” she said.

Barbara Crofcheck, who oversees the 60+CAP program as Cal U's director of Continuing Education, said many people react that way when they hear about the program.

Total undergraduate cost of attendance for Pennsylvania residents at the school — including room and board, books and fees — was pegged at nearly $26,737 last year. Tuition and fees alone were $10,339.

Although the program is featured on the Cal U website as tuition-free, it's not totally free. Students still must underwrite the cost of books and fees. But the school waives many campus fees for those enrolled in online programs. And to date, there have been no caps on the number of students enrolled.

“For me, I'm going to end up with less than $4,000 spent and a degree from a credible school,” DeJesus said.

No one at the university can say exactly when the program began. A history professor emeritus said it has been a part of the university since he arrived in the late 1960s.

“I think they probably always had it,” said J.K. Folmar.

The school could be just a tad ahead of the curve with this program.

U.S. Department of Education statistics suggest campuses will begin hosting an increasingly older cohort of students in the near future. As recently as 2014, the 18-to-24-year-old college population held sway at 12 million, but there were already 8.2 million students 25 and older.

Many colleges and universities invite those 60 or older to audit courses, space permitting, at no cost. A handful even permit them to take a course for credit at a reduced cost. And some schools — including the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State, Carnegie Mellon and West Virginia University — host Osher Life Long Learning Institutes that offer enrichment courses for older students at a minimal cost.

But Cal U's 60+CAP, which has enrolled 56 students over the last three years, including 30 in master's programs, may be the only deal of its kind in Pennsylvania.

Larry Maggi, chairman of the university's council of trustees and a Cal U alum who serves as a Washington County commissioner, said the low-key program has been a plus for the small college town on the Monongahela River that has struggled with declining enrollment over the last five years.

Although the school struggled financially as well, Maggi insisted the 60+CAP program, which enrolled 21 students in the 2017 spring semester, has not added to that struggle.

“It doesn't really cost us anything. It's one of these things we can do. It's not a real expense for us,” he said. “We haven't bragged about it. It's kind of been under the radar. More people probably should be taking advantage of it.

“One of the reasons I knew about it is there are some retirees who have moved to the area to take classes or take advantage of the other amenities of the university.”

While a rapidly changing economy is forcing many older adults, like Debra McCardle, to consider a return to the classroom to sharpen their job skills, few schools offer the kind of benefit available through 60+CAP.

McCardle, 64, of Dormont said she learned about the program after she lost her job as project coordinator for an engineering firm in the oil and gas industry in 2015.

“I went on unemployment. Then I had to go to a class in Pittsburgh and watch a video, and it was part of the program. They said if you're over 60 you can go back to school free for your undergraduate degree. That was all I heard in that video,” she said.

“I called the school, emailed my driver's license to them and enrolled that day. I saw this as my golden opportunity. I had gone to community college in the '70s and Point Park in the 1990s, but life intervened and I never finished my degree,” McCardle said.

She enrolled in August 2015 and graduated in December after accruing 45 credits. In the interim, she went back to work full time at Giant Eagle, working 37 to 39 hours a week.

Her winter and spring semester classes were all online, so she only had to make the hourlong drive to campus during the summer.

“It wasn't easy; it was a lot of hard work. But I think the learning was a lot easier this time. If I can do this, anyone can,” she said.

She said her degree in business administration with a minor in finance has opened new doors for her at Giant Eagle, where she works as a front-end coordinator and is training for other advancement opportunities.

Like McCardle, Debra Keffer of Charleroi,had some college credits when she first heard about the 60+CAP program. She had earned an associate degree from Robert Morris University and picked up the occasional course at Cal U while working as coordinator of the Mon Valley Chamber of Commerce.

For Keffer, finishing college was a matter of checking an item off her bucket list and pursing a course of study that would enhance the writing and public-speaking skills she often taps in her charity work.

She is taking an online course this summer and is considered a minor in communications studies.

“I run the chamber, and it's a full-time job. But (60+CAP) is just so much fun. I'm having the best time,” she said.

After helping her son through Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, she knows full well the break she is receiving on her education and the debt many traditional students carry at graduation.

“But I've been a taxpayer most of my life and between the taxes I pay and the fees (at Cal U), I'm not batting an eyelash at taking advantage of this,” she said. “This is a great resource. To me, it is a community outreach program and good public relations for them.”

Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com or via Twitter @deberdley_trib.

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