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Western Pa.'s community colleges thinking outside their counties

| Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013, 7:53 p.m.
Bethany Fleming, 19, of Kittanning looks at school work at the Butler Community College campus Friday. Fleming, a nursing student in her second year at the campus, pays double the tuition at Butler because she is an out-of-county student. She said she has no choice but to pay the increased fees because there are no community colleges in Armstrong County. Bill Vidonic | Tribune-Review

In an era of falling enrollments, tightening budgets and rising costs, some county-sponsored community colleges depend on students from other counties — even other states — to help balance budgets, benefiting from a practice used by state-related schools, such as the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State, which court higher-paying, out-of-state students.

Community colleges officials said it's not about the money. Instead, they're providing an education to those in areas not served by community colleges, they said. But they also acknowledge nonresident students can add to the bottom line in big ways.

Out-of-county students make up a third of the student body at Butler County Community College but bring in more tuition than do in-county students, who outnumber them.

Butler collected more than $5.7 million in out-of-county and out-of state tuition for 2011-12, compared with $5.4 million for in-county tuition. Out-of-county students pay almost twice the $114 per-credit rate of in-county students, and out-of-state students pay nearly triple.

Westmoreland County benefits from facilities in Greene, Indiana and Fayette counties. For 2011-12, nonresident students, who make up 34 percent of the student body, paid 63 percent of the tuition.

“We find ourselves in a position that we've become somewhat dependent on our out-of-county revenue. If it were to diminish significantly or go away, it would be a pretty big hit in terms of our budget,” said Daniel Obara, president of Westmoreland County Community College.

Nonresident students said they have no choice but to pay higher fees, which generally are double what county residents pay, because educational choices in their home counties are scarce.

“I don't think it's fair I have to pay double,” said Bethany Fleming, 19, of Kittanning in her second year of Butler's nursing program. “I have to pay more, and I have to drive about 45 minutes to get here.”

Armstrong County does not have a community college.

The Community College of Allegheny County relies less on out-of-county students. The school's 27,694 students living in Allegheny County paid $40.3 million in tuition for 2011-12; its 4,804 out-of-county students paid about 10 percent of that.

“If there are any commitments to out-of-county residents, it's to serve underserved populations,” President Alex Johnson said. “Our primary responsibility is to the citizens of Allegheny County.”

Butler County Community College is looking to increase its lucrative numbers when it opens an education center in Brockway for the fall 2013 semester, potentially doubling the number of served there to nearly 100. BCCC also has facilities in Cranberry; New Castle, Lawrence County; Hermitage, Mercer County, and has about 50 students at the Jefferson-Dubois Area Vocational Technical School in Brockway.

“Budgetarily, it has helped us,” said James A. Hrabosky, vice president of finance and administration for the college. “The amount of revenue coming from these sites exceeds the cost.”

Out-of-county tuition has helped the school build a $12.8 million surplus, causing Butler County commissioners to reduce the county subsidy by $300,000.

To boost interest in the new Brockway site, Hrabosky said, the college has done advertising, reached out to high schools and set up an advisory board of community leaders.

The college is conducting a survey to determine whether to add housing to its main campus for students coming from other counties.

Greene County approached Westmoreland in 1999 about setting up a campus center, Obara said, and Indiana did the same the next year.

Both counties provide a stipend to WCCC so that their students pay the in-county rate. The college also set up a center in Fayette County in 2004, but students there pay the out-of county rate.

“There are many counties that simply don't have a large enough population to sustain a community college,” Obara said. “Neighboring community colleges can provide that, and we've been encouraged to do that.”

Of the 219,000 credit students enrolled in the 14 community colleges across Pennsylvania for the 2011-12 school year, 74.5 percent were residents of the sponsoring county, another 23.7 percent were out-of-county and 1.8 percent were from out of state, according to the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges.

Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or bvidonic@tribweb.com.

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