Western Pa. community colleges struggle for relevancy as enrollment falls

Debra Erdley
| Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015, 10:51 p.m.

When Pennsylvania's community college movement bloomed in the mid-20th century, the two-year public colleges tasked with providing an affordable path to higher education and jobs were seen as the wave of the future.

Over the years, as educators and policymakers pushed the value of a four-year degree, that message was muted.

Now, as some states and cities across the nation are improving access by guaranteeing free tuition, community colleges in Western Pennsylvania are fighting to sustain their mission while facing declining enrollment, stagnant public support and dramatic tuition increases.

Experts say there's no simple explanation for the problems.

Elizabeth Bolden, president of the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges, said drops in enrollment are linked to a shrinking pool of recent high school graduates and an improving economy that has driven more students to four-year colleges.

Many say the schools' funding shortfalls are tied to a drift from the original premise that money for the colleges would come from a three-way split —the state financing one-third, the county another third and tuition the final third.

“We know state support is well below that third number. It is about 17 to 18 percent. And (county) sponsorship varies from 4 percent to upper 20 percent. If those are not at the one-third level, the only other source of revenue is students,” Bolden said.

Working with students

At the Community College of Allegheny County, where “steep and ongoing enrollment declines” were cited last month in a downgrade of the school's bond rating, President Quintin Bullock said officials are working to reverse the trend.

The college that counted 15,281 full-time equivalent students in fall 2011 saw that number slip to 11,586 this fall.

Bullock said trustees froze tuition this fall after several consecutive years of increases and supported his initiative to reach out to students who failed to pay on time. Rather than write them off the school's rolls, CCAC is offering them the option of a payment plan. The school also is intensifying its outreach to local high schools.

At Westmoreland County Community College, where county support makes up about 4.2 percent of the school's operating budget, officials boosted tuition by 25 percent this fall. And full-time equivalent enrollment, which had climbed from 4,264 in 2013 to 4,643 last fall, tumbled to 4,070 in September.

WCCC President Tuesday Stanley doesn't link the tuition hike to the enrollment decline.

“We are sensitive to any tuition increase, and we have made an effort to communicate to students about financial aid, scholarships and the payment plan,” said Stanley.

Students hurrying to class at WCCC's Youngwood campus said there is little they can do about increasing costs.

Luke Haines, 20, of North Huntingdon is in his fifth semester of studying business.

“I guess you just have to pay it. There's nowhere else you can go that's going to be cheaper,” he said.

Freshman Marcia Schimizzi, 18, of Greensburg said the cost didn't deter her.

“It kind of puts a little more pressure on making the right decisions, and being careful with where your money goes,” she said.

Only one of Western Pennsylvania's four community colleges — the Community College of Butler County — has reversed enrollment declines that began after the economic downturn. But full-time equivalent enrollment there, which totaled 1,693 this fall, up from 1,622 in 2013, is well below the fall 2011 number of 2,206.

Beaver County Community College President Chris Reber said he believes the college is turning the corner through a variety of outreach efforts, including creation of centers targeting dual enrollment for high-achieving high school students.

But faced with the reality of a decline in full-time enrollment from 2,287 in 2011 to 1,856 this fall, Reber fears affordability is an issue.

“We have students raising families, working full time and part time and going to school. And some students perceive they can't afford it,” Reber said.

National efforts

While Pennsylvania students seem resigned to higher costs, community college students in Tennessee don't have to worry.

In Tennessee, which is midway through its first year of “free community college,” officials have seen double-digit increases in enrollment.

The Tennessee Promise, funded through the state's lottery fund, is part of an effort to ensure that 55 percent of the state's adults have completed a post-high school certificate or degree program by 2025. The program makes up the difference between money offered by various state and federal grant programs and the cost of tuition.

Warren Nichols, Tennessee's vice chancellor for community colleges, said discussions with students about college begin in middle school to encourage thinking about higher education.

“Many folks thought that when you said college, you were talking about a bachelor's degree or a master's program, but this is more than that. We're talking about the training and skills that are needed for welding, plumbing, manufacturing, becoming a nurse or police officer,” he said.

Thinking ahead

In Pennsylvania, where an aging workforce is putting increasing pressure on employers, many say that sounds like a good idea.

David Taylor, president of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association, worries the state has been taking its community colleges for granted and could be falling behind other states in preparing a future workforce.

Stanley said WCCC is working with employers who have come to the school with concerns about an aging workforce.

“We are trying to be a part of that solution as well — showing students or prospective students a different path to prosperity,” she said.

In Allegheny County, CCAC points to a program it will launch in January. Funded with a $13 million federal grant and aimed at educating 1,860 low-income students during the next five years, the program is designed to turn out nurses, nursing assistants, paramedics and health information technology specialists.

Officials in this region are monitoring free-tuition programs in other states.

“There are a number of ways to increase affordability, through local scholarships, increases in state financial aid through PHEAA and others. While a free community college program is very appealing, none of those programs has been around long enough to realize their impact,” Bolden said.

Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com. Kari Andren contributed to this report.

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