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A-K Valley improving by degrees

| Friday, May 31, 2002

Editor's note: For the next six days, the Valley News Dispatch is exploring Census 2000 figures released this week with in-depth stories about what they mean to Valley residents.

More Valley residents are getting college diplomas, but so are other Pennsylvanians and Americans.

Statewide, about 22 percent of residents older than 24 had at least a bachelor's degree in 2000, according to a survey released this week by the U.S. Census Bureau. That figure is an increase of about 4 percentage points over 1990 figures.

Locally, figures went from 20 percent in the Allegheny County portion of the Valley to almost 80 percent in the Butler County portion.

"This one statistic is much more important to our regional economic development than other commonly used statistics like the unemployment rate," said Richard Florida, the Heinz Professor of Regional Economic Development at Carnegie Mellon University.

"We've seen a real revolution in the way we view regional economic development in the past decade," he said, "and the most important factor in the region's economic development is human capital."

During the 1990s, the higher educational attainment in the Valley's four counties mirrored regional and state trends. Here are the increases in bachelor's degrees for the Valley:

  • Allegheny County - 28.3 percent in 2000 had degrees, up 20 percent from 1990;

  • Armstrong County - 10.4 percent in 2000 had degrees, up 31 percent from 1990;

  • Butler County - 23.5 percent in 2000 had degrees, up 79 percent from 1990;

  • Westmoreland County - 20.2 percent in 2000 had degrees, up 35 percent from 1990.

    "What you're talking about in Allegheny County is not that far off from the rest of nation," said Harold "Bud" Hodgkinson, a demographer with the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Educational Leadership.

    He said the proportion of adults with at least a bachelor's degree in America rose from 20 percent to 25 percent during the period.

    "My guess is we still lag behind the leading counties in the United States," Florida said.

    When looking at which municipalities had increases in the number of college-educated people, population and income trends need to be taken into consideration.

    The Census data show that having a college education is closely related to income.

    Fox Chapel led southwestern Pennsylvania not only in the proportion of residents with college degrees, 80 percent, but also average household income, $147,298.

    Shifts in population also affect the trends. A municipality may have seen an increase in the number of residents with degrees, but the population of people older than 24 also may have increased.

    Therefore, an increase in college graduates doesn't necessarily mean more people are getting degrees, just that there are more people in the area with degrees.

    But even so, there are more college-educated people in the Valley now, even after considering an increase in population.

    There are 2,115 more people in the Valley in the 25-and-older age group, but there are almost 9,000 more people with degrees.

    Sharp rise in Butler County

    In several southeastern Butler County municipalities, the number of college-educated people more than doubled. Although population increased, those increases don't begin to account for the jump in residents with higher education.

    In Saxonburg, for example, there are about 32 percent more people 24 and older than there were 10 years ago, but the number of college grads more than tripled.

    Municipalities showing decreases in college grads often are those with decreasing populations, including Arnold, Avonmore, Kittanning, North Apollo, Oklahoma Borough and Springdale Borough.

    At 46 percent, Avonmore had the biggest decrease in college graduates. The borough also had a 25 percent decrease in population.

    Edward A. Nicholson, president of Robert Morris University, recommends the region not give itself too big a pat on the back for its educational improvement.

    A big part of the local increase, he speculated, is due to its older population. As senior citizens with less education die off, the proportion of residents with a college degree grows, he said.

    But Nicholson said the region also benefits from its large number of colleges and universities. He said many of their students stay here after graduation.

    "You're also seeing the result of increased options for adults to get degrees," he said, citing the University of Phoenix and online programs offered by local colleges.

    Patty Brady, an admissions coordinator at Penn State New Kensington, noted there has been a steady increase of adult students enrolling in degree programs at the campus.

    In fall 2001, the campus had 296 adults enroll in degree programs, Brady said. Anyone older than 24 is considered an adult student.

    The fact that people can graduate with four-year degrees from the Upper Burrell campus is partially responsible for the increase, Brady said.

    The availability of evening classes also is a plus.

    "We have classes geared for working adults who need to continue working while they are pursuing their degree," Brady said.

    Other adults choose to take classes through nondegree, certificate programs offered by the campus' Continuing Education Department. Once a certificate is obtained, Brady said some adults continue taking classes toward an associate or bachelor's degree.

    Mike Toney, in his 50s of Monroeville, is an example of a nontraditional student.

    After graduating from high school, Toney attended Community College of Allegheny College and a nursing school.

    While working as a manager for Montgomery Ward in Lower Burrell, he quit nursing school and concentrated on business. After closing his own health food stores, however, he was forced to look for work.

    "What I was finding was although I had all this wonderful management experience, I didn't have a college degree," he said.

    In 1999, Toney enrolled at Robert Morris and majored in human resources management and accounting. He squeezes his 12 credits of classes with his full-time job as manager of Mobile Medical Corp. in Bethel Park.

    Toney praised the university's adult program. A three-credit course requires one hour of traditional instruction and three to eight hours in an online classroom.

    "It makes it easier for nontraditional students like myself going back to school," he said.

    Tribune-Review Media Service writer Bill Zlatos also contributed to this report.

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