Community Colleges Try to Stay Relevant as Enrollment Drops; 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. [Derived Headline]

By Erdley, Debra | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, November 22, 2015 | Go to article overview

Community Colleges Try to Stay Relevant as Enrollment Drops; 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. [Derived Headline]


Erdley, Debra, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


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.

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 of 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 is intensifying its outreach to local high schools.

At Westmoreland County Community College, where county support now 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," Stanley said.

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. …

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Community Colleges Try to Stay Relevant as Enrollment Drops; 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. [Derived Headline]
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