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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 rwills@tribweb.com.

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