ShareThis Page

Enrollment down at most of Pennsylvania's 14 community colleges

| Saturday, Aug. 3, 2013, 7:50 p.m.

Rochelle Knerr, a second-year nursing student at the Community College of Allegheny County, says the number of students in most of her classes at the North Side campus usually drops by about half before a class ends.

“People drop out for all kinds of reasons, I guess,” said Knerr, 19, of Arlington.

After peaking three years ago, enrollment is down at most of Pennsylvania's 14 community colleges — in some cases far more than administrators anticipated.

There are many reasons for the decline, including shrinking birth rates that left fewer high school graduates, an economic rebound that takes students out of classrooms and into jobs and, to the surprise of some administrators, the Affordable Care Act.

“Some community college administrators say the health care law might be contributing to declining enrollment. That's not the intent of the law, obviously,” said Kent Phillippe, associate vice president of the American Association of Community Colleges in Washington.

Community college enrollment trends are substantially different than enrollment in four-year colleges and universities, he said.

“When the economy is poor, there are large increases in the number of students in community colleges. As more jobs become available, enrollment drops,” Phillippe said.

During the recession, Phillippe said the nation's 1,130 community colleges attracted students who lost work and needed retraining, along with students who planned to attend four-year schools but chose community colleges because of lower tuition.

The Affordable Care Act in 2010 allows young people to stay on their parents' heath insurance policies until they are 26. Before, college-age students had to be enrolled in 12 credit hours per semester to stay on their parents' insurance policies.

“That might be a reason people find it easier to drop out. It's now easier to have health care without being in school. I have heard some people talk about that,” said Knerr, the mother of a small child. Knerr is on her mother's insurance policy.

Butler County Community College experienced a stark drop in enrollment, which surprised administrators. Enrollment declined last year by 9 percent — far more than the 2 percent school officials anticipated, said James Hrabosky, vice president for administration and finance.

“We think the changes in health care laws is one reason that enrollment fell more than we expected,” Hrabosky said.

Enrollment for the upcoming school year likely will be even lower, he said.

The law's guarantee that young people can remain on their parents' health insurance plans “takes pressure off people who might really not want to be in school. For most students, I think it's a secondary consideration,” said Jeff Wagner, 19, of Sewickley, a respiratory therapy student at CCAC.

At Westmoreland Community College, enrollment for the fall of 2012 was down about 4 percent from the year before.

“We suspect (the law) is contributing to the decrease, but we can't validate it,” spokeswoman Anna Marie Palatella said.

The same is true at CCAC and the Community College of Beaver County, administrators said. Enrollment fell when the economy began to improve and financial aid requirements tightened, they said.

“CCAC, as well as other community colleges, experienced historic high levels of enrollment as opportunities for employment declined and individuals turned to community colleges to pursue a college education or acquire additional training and skills,” said Elizabeth Johnston, a CCAC spokeswoman.

Heath care coverage always was a consideration for some students, said Diane Bosak, director of the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges.

“But there are many variables. This summer, the questions about student interest rates may have scared some people away,” she said.

Kent State University operates seven two-year colleges in addition to its main campus at Kent, Ohio, where tuition is higher.

“We saw more students enroll, particularly at regional campuses, in 2009 and 2010. As the economy gets better, many people are finding work,” said Emily Vincent, university spokeswoman.

Enrollment fluctuations occur for many reasons, said Jane Karas, president of Flathead Valley Community College in Libby, Mont., and chair of the board of the American Association of Community Colleges. Enrollment at her school increased 55 percent in two years.

“That was good, but almost too much for us to handle. Many students have gone back to work. Many also have families. Even though enrollment has declined, it is higher than it was before the recession,” Karas said.

Rick Wills is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7944 or at

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.