2-year schools in Western Pa. tout affordability

Debra Erdley
| Saturday, Feb. 1, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Jesse McElroy balked at the notion of going to a community college in 2012 as her friends headed off to campus life at four-year colleges.

In May, McElroy, 20, of Shaler expects to graduate debt-free from Community College of Allegheny County with an associate's degree in business with honors.

“A lot of my instructors teach at Pitt and Penn State, and all of my credits transfer. Some of my friends are already $40,000 to $50,000 in debt after two years. I don't have to worry about that,” McElroy said. Scholarships and living at home helped her to avoid student loans.

Community colleges across Western Pennsylvania, stung by double-digit declines in enrollment over the past three years, are counting on stories such as hers to recruit college-bound high school students who worry about student loan debt.

Although enrollment slipped slightly at community colleges across the country, steep declines here — 17 to 22 percent since 2010 — moved the schools to step up recruitment.

Westmoreland County Community College, where full-time equivalent enrollment declined 18 percent, addressed tuition in a series of ads: “Worried about college debt? Do the math: private college, $45,000 per year; public college, $25,000 per year; WCCC, $3,420 per year.” The private and public college figures include average tuition, fees and room and board; the community college figure includes in-county tuition and fees for 30 credits.

“Our students say that cost is one of the main reasons they choose WCCC, and we wanted to illustrate the value proposition of WCCC compared to private and state colleges,” spokeswoman Anna Marie Palatella said.

Community college enrollment typically rises in weak economic times, when displaced workers seek skills or financially strapped families need a break on college costs.

Officials at CCAC expected enrollment to decline when the economy improved.

No one was ready when enrollment at CCAC declined by 8 percent in September, about four times what was projected. The decline shot a $5 million hole in the college's $112.5 million budget and forced CCAC to eliminate a number of under-enrolled class sections.

Michael Murphy, a consultant for the AmericanAssociation of Community Colleges, said it makes sense for community colleges to emphasize cost advantages.

It's a natural response to a marketplace in which tuition for four-year institutions outpaced cost-of-living increases and some schools have trumpeted their high tuition as a measure of prestige.

“Younger students need to be aware of where the value is. It's always intriguing to me that people are willing to pay more on a proposition that is not so much value-driven as it is driven by perception that, ‘If it costs more, it must be better,' ” Murphy said.

Ashley Hevsey, 20, of Butler never saw things that way.

Hevsey will graduate from Butler County Community College this spring with an associate degree in applied science. Several universities accepted her, but she opted for the community college when she saw its passing rate on the nursing licensing exam was higher than some of those universities and tuition was much lower.

“A lot of my friends said, ‘Why are you going there? That's just 13th grade.' But a degree is a degree,” Hevsey said. She plans to start working when she passes the licensing exam, aiming for this summer. She will enroll in an 18-month program at Slippery Rock University to complete a bachelor of science degree in nursing.

The value of an associate degree can't be underestimated for those who want to get a four-year degree, Murphy said.

In 2013, the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that community college students who transferred to four-year programs with a two-year degree or certificate had a 72 percent graduation rate, compared to 56 percent for those lacking a complete credential upon transfer.

Many colleges and universities will accept 60 credits — the equivalent of two years of college work — if a student completed an associate degree at a community college.

That's the scenario at the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, where community college transfers are up 16.5 percent from 2,875 in 2008 to 3,352 this year.

Students trying to transfer without a degree may find not all of their credits are accepted.

“That's why I never understand kids who just take classes to transfer, instead of taking classes for a degree,” McElroy said. “Nobody can take away your degree.”

Debra Erdley is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach herat 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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