Community college expects increased enrollment
Butler County Community College officials expect a 10 percent increase in enrollment this fall semester compared with last fall after experiencing an amazing 24 percent increase in enrollment during the summer semester.
The summer term had 1,437 students this year, compared with 1,156 last year.
It is a nice change from a college enrollment that was "flat lining" for about six years, college President Fred Bartok said.
While a sluggish local economy is helping boost enrollment at the college, Bartok said, several other factors have come into play. The college has about 3,400 full- and part-time students so far for the fall semester, and part-time students are continuing to enroll. The enrollment was 3,106 last fall.
"Part of it was blind luck, but a lot of it was strategy," he said.
About half a dozen years ago, when the college's enrollment was at a plateau, school officials decided to expand their market area in an effort to boost enrollment.
"That's when we started going very heavily into Armstrong, Lawrence, Mercer and Crawford counties. We really took our tentacles and expanded them and created for ourselves new markets, which have blossomed," he said.
Today, the college has a presence in each of those counties, which don't have community colleges of their own, and offers a variety of courses for students in those areas by using space in schools, he said.
The college's Cranberry Township campus is attracting additional students, Admissions Director Bill Miller said.
Bartok said the college also has been working harder to attract younger students.
"And that's where we're seeing growth," Bartok and Susan Changnon, marketer and spokeswoman for the college, said in unison.
Not too many years ago, the average age of a student at the college was 36, Bartok said. Today, the number of students between the ages of 18 and 26 has "skyrocketed," he said.
"I think we've seen somewhere between an 18 to 20 percent increase in the number of 18- to 26-year-olds (in the past two years)," he said. "We're seeing a greater penetration of that market."
Helping to attract younger students, he said, are a number of new programs.
A computer forensics course, for instance, is attracting many students, Bartok said. The course prepares students to investigate computer-related crimes.
"There is something too sexy about the whole thing," Lucy Wright-Scozzaro, assistant dean of business at the college, said about the course. "There's a part of us who wants to know what's in somebody else's closet."
Krista Miller, of Meadville, Crawford County, said she is attending Butler County Community College because it offers a program in metrology, the study of measurement.
"There's only two colleges in the U.S. (offering metrology)," said Miller, a second-year student.
She chose to attend the Butler County college because of its proximity to her home.
Miller said she enjoys the course work and the school.
The college's distance education program also is attracting a lot of attention, Bartok said. He credited a part of this summer's 24 percent enrollment increase to distance learning - the opportunity to take courses over the Internet.
Bartok also said he thinks the opening of the college's new $17.25 million Science, Technology and Cultural Center is attracting the attention of students, as well as parents of students.
Students and parents, he said, see both a new training center and new opportunities at this campus.
In addition to attracting students, Bartok said the college is working harder to help keep students in school.
A student retention program has faculty working more closely with students to identify those having trouble in the classroom and to refer them to expanded tutoring programs.
Along with after-class help from faculty, "you can tutor now electronically; you can tutor in the library. So, there are many, many support mechanisms," he said.
Bartok said faculty members also have been instructed to call the parents of students who are having difficulty, when appropriate, to ensure that students get help.
"There's a whole lot of intervention on the part of faculty," he said.
As a result, "we saw a 28 percent increase this past year in the actual retention of students, which is a phenomenal number," he said.
"You really have to work to fail here," Bartok said.
Changnon said the school also depends a great deal on surveys as it works to attract students and improve its curriculum.
"We survey our graduates. We survey our employers. We survey community," she said.
Those surveys have resulted in the introduction of new courses and development of other things such as the student retention program, she said.
Bartok also said the cost of attending Butler County Community College also can't be ignored.
At a time when Penn State University, the University of Pittsburgh and Slippery Rock University are increasing their costs, Butler County Community College remains a steal, he said.
A student can attend the community college for about $2,100 a year, Changnon said, compared with about $5,200 at a four-year state school.
And after two years at the community college, the student's credits can be transferred to almost any four-year college or university, which allows a student to begin there as a junior.
"That message is starting to sink in," Bartok said.
As a result, many BC3 graduates transfer to Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Robert Morris University, Slippery Rock University and even Youngstown State University in Ohio, he said.
Any Butler County Community College graduate with a "B" average or better who decides to go to Youngstown State also gets a $2,500 scholarship, he said. "We're feeders," he said with a smile.
Bartok, who is retiring later this year, said he is delighted with the course that the college has taken in recent years, which is paying off in terms of growing student enrollment. He will be replaced by Cynthia Azari.
"I think all of the things that we strategized five or six years ago are all coming to fruition," he said.