College in Challenging Times

Sure, the current economic woes create a ripple effect in higher education, but despite enrollment fluctuation and tuition obstacles, Joe (and Jodie) College still have a chance to ride the wave.

Darjana Juric was always sure she’d go to college. But her family’s painful flight from war-torn Bosnia to Germany to Baldwin Township made the 19-year-old’s path rougher than most. The Jurics and their five children, now U.S. citizens, arrived in Pittsburgh in 1999. Quickly mastering English and excelling at Baldwin High School, the oldest three children – Darjana and her brothers Darjan and Danijel – then chose to begin their college careers close to home, at Penn State University-Greater Allegheny campus in McKeesport.

Juggling part-time jobs with full-time studies, Darjana has maintained a 3.5 grade average and hopes to follow older brother Darjan to Penn State’s University Park campus to complete her bachelor’s degree after this year. Her ultimate goal: law school.

“Our parents did not go to college, but in their eyes, as well as ours, you can’t really get far without it,” says Darjana. “They are always pushing us. It’s something we all wish to accomplish.”

Most of Western Pennsylvania agrees with the Jurics. Far from discouraging students from investing in education, the current economic pinch is driving record numbers of students to the region’s colleges and technical schools.

“In my opinion parents aren’t changing their minds about college,” says James Begany, associate vice president of enrollment management at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. “Culturally, they understand the importance of education. And you can borrow more now.”

As families like Darjana’s are painfully aware, borrowing is probably required. College costs are at an all-time high. Nationally respected private institutions such as Swarthmore, Williams, Middlebury and Amherst College are reporting a drop in applications, which officials ascribe to shrinking family wallets.

Yet here in Western Pennsylvania, both private and public institutions are bucking the trend. They’re reporting more applications and generally higher enrollments than in past years – despite the fact that the average annual tuition in Pennsylvania for a private school hit $27,520 in 2008-’09, according to the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA). The average at the 14 state-owned and four state-affiliated universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education is a mere $10,290 a year.

At the 14 state-owned universities, students will incur an average of approximately $22,000 in debt to earn that sheepskin. So why are they digging deeper than ever for college this year?

According to Amanda Yale, associate provost for enrollment services at Slippery Rock University, a college degree provides the opportunity for social mobility. The earning advantage of college graduates is well-documented. A Pennsylvania college graduate’s lifetime earnings are double that of a high school grad, and he or she is half as likely to be unemployed, PHEAA reports. But administrators argue that a deep background in critical thinking and communication makes the long-term difference.

“Those with college degrees do better in a recession – it’s less important what that degree is in,” agrees Patricia Beeson, vice provost for graduate and undergraduate studies at the University of Pittsburgh. “If you have a good, solid foundation, if you can write and think analytically – all the skills you develop independent of the major – that’s what allows you to be more nimble.”

While the traditional pool of 18-year-old high school graduates shrinks in the region, several factors are keeping college enrollments up. One is the Pittsburgh Promise, a scholarship program for city high school graduates that was created by the Pittsburgh Foundation and supported by the Pittsburgh Public Schools and local donors. It’s feeding hundreds of students to two- and four-year colleges.

At the same time, older students are returning to campus to gain certificates, associate degrees or bachelor’s degrees. These adults, years beyond high school graduation and often supporting families, are opting for shorter, more intensive programs with strong links to existing jobs. “Today the lines have been blurred,” says Judy Bolsinger, executive director of enrollment management at Carlow University.

As Western Pennsylvania shifts to an eds-and-meds economy, health-science programs are booming, but training for new “green” jobs, high-tech and energy-related fields continues to show strength. Majors in nuclear medicine, nano-manufacturing technology and information assurance (creating secure methods for storing and sharing digital data) have debuted on local campuses, while engineering retains its ranking as the most in-demand major by employers. Michael Steidel, director of admissions at Carnegie Mellon University, says that CMU’s increase in applications to technology-related fields this year is typical during a recession, because many students believe pursuing these courses of study will yield better job offers in technical fields.

Overall, colleges forecast freshman enrollments that match or exceed last fall’s. CMU expects a full class of 1,360; it received 22,780 applications, including a 30 percent increase in the number of students requesting early decision. Chatham University’s number of expected 240 first-year and transfer students is slightly below last year’s 250, while Duquesne University expects to match or surpass last year’s freshman enrollment. The group of 1,430 was the second largest in the school’s history.

Point Park University expects to match last year’s enrollment of 806 new, traditional-age students, which includes freshmen and transfer students. Indiana University of Pennsylvania planned to close admissions for the fall semester in late June, anticipating a full freshman class, and Penn State-Greater Allegheny reports deposits for fall admission are up 21 percent from last fall.

Cyber schools like the University of Phoenix make it possible to earn a degree from home, and online courses and degree programs and weekend-only programs make college possible for time-pressed workers. Observes Judy Bolsinger of Carlow University, “We have people of all ages attending in all different formats. It’s much more diverse.”

Joe College, it seems, is on a roll. But the $100,000 question looms: How will he pay for it?

Caught Short, Families Seek More Aid

Filling out a FAFSA – the free application for federal student aid – puts all higher-education applicants on the path to federal and state grants (which need not be repaid) and loans (which require repayment, usually after graduation). This year, both federal and state sources of aid have been increased.

A $500 boost in the federal stimulus legislation means that this year, low-income students can receive up to $5,350 in Pell grants, which are generally made to students whose family income is below $60,000 a year. Tax credits, including Hope Scholarships, for the first two years of college, and Lifetime Learning credits, for upper-division and graduate students, continue to be available to those who pay federal taxes.

Stafford loans, a mainstay for many families, range from a maximum of $5,500 for first-year dependent students and increase to $7,500 by junior year. Interest rates for those loans will decrease by about a half-percent this fall, to 5.6 percent, with incremental drops in the next two years.

At the state level, PHEAA awards grants to eligible families (generally those with incomes under $100,000). It also administers Stafford loans and sets rates for loans such as PLUS (Parent Loan for Undergraduate Students), which offer a 10-year repayment but carry higher interest rates.

Gov. Ed Rendell has proposed an unusual new source for tuition relief. Taxing owners of video-poker machines would aid families earning up to $100,000 a year who have students attending local community colleges or the 14 universities in the State System of Higher Education. In addition to Indiana and Slippery Rock, they include Bloomsburg, California, Cheyney, Clarion, East Stroudsburg, Edinboro, Kutztown, Lock Haven, Mansfield, Millersville, Shippensburg and West Chester. Students at the state’s four state-related universities – Pitt, Penn State, Lincoln and Temple – have predictably raised objections to being excluded from the budget proposal, which was being debated by the General Assembly at press time.

Private colleges and universities traditionally supplement those financial-aid awards with other scholarships and grants from their own endowments. Perhaps for that reason, local private schools say that few of their students have asked the college for more money.

At both Carnegie Mellon University and Chatham University, with overall annual costs of $53,660 and $39,000 respectively, admissions managers say there’s been little demand for increased aid awards. “Ninety-five percent of our students receive aid,” Michael May, Chatham’s director of graduate admissions, points out. “Every student gets a scholarship based on her high school grade-point average and SAT scores, up to $18,000 for tuition, room and board, and we award merit scholarships up to $12,000.”

Robert Morris University faculty members, staff and administrators sacrificed expected raises to add $750,000 to its student-aid pool. Ninety percent of its enrollment receives either this type of aid or government assistance. Duquesne University has made plans to spend an additional $1 million for scholarship and need-based grant support for eligible students. These funds will be derived from general operating funds, endowment income and contingency funds.

Meanwhile, smaller state universities in the state are squeezing funds from institutional budgets to help students bridge aid shortfalls. This year, there’s evidence that families need a stronger bridge.

Slippery Rock University invited 3,000 of its 7,691 students to apply for need-based grants through the institution. On May 12, the school invited aid recipients to apply online for more aid if the economy had affected them in the last year. The results were dramatic. “In 48 hours, we received over 800 e-mails,” says Amanda Yale. “They told stories of job loss, reduction in hours, layoffs. So many of our students are the first in their families to go to college. Now they’re questioning if they can afford to continue.” The university is releasing $250,000 to help students this fall.

Indiana University of Pennsylvania has seen a 40 percent jump in review requests and is also diverting funds for special cases.
With traditionally low tuition and open enrollment, community colleges have seldom offered students aid from their own pockets. Community College of Allegheny County is an exception. Its gap scholarships help current students who are not eligible for financial aid with up to $500 for books, child care or loss of income.

CCAC also made headlines earlier this year with its decision to offer free tuition for job retraining to laid-off workers. “We are poised to make this a better time for people. That is important,” says Judy Savolskis, CCAC’s interm vice president of workforce development.

A new GI Bill is expected to boost veteran enrollment nationally this year. Seton Hill University was the first school in Westmoreland County to announce its participation in the Yellow Ribbon Program through the new GI Education Enhancement Program, which offers returning military personnel and their dependents free tuition and other educational assistance. In addition to receiving full tuition benefits, veterans will receive a book allowance and a monthly allowance for housing costs.

New Majors and New Careers

Pennsylvania’s 95 colleges and universities that award degrees in education grew from “normal schools,” higher-education institutions that prepared graduates for classroom jobs. Now, thousands of graduates leave the state annually to find first jobs elsewhere. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review recently estimated that fewer than half of the state’s 15,000 new teachers will find in-state positions. Most will settle for lower-paying posts, often in the southeastern United States, where demand is stronger.

As a result, teacher colleges are seeing a shift in enrollments away from education and into other majors, particularly those in the health sciences. At Indiana University of Pennsylvania, criminology is now a popular major, as are nursing and allied-health programs. In 2007-’08, Slippery Rock’s health, environment and science majors outpaced those in education for the first time.

Nursing curricula, from associate degrees at community colleges to doctoral programs in nursing practice, reflect the economic dominance of the health industry serving Western Pennsylvania’s aging population. But as health care becomes more complex, the variety of health-related offerings has mushroomed. Emerging occupations go beyond those of bioengineers, physician assistants and nurse practitioners.

Chatham University offers exercise science (which trains future fitness trainers and prepares students to go to graduate school for physical therapy); through its pharmacy school, Duquesne University offers a B.S. in health care supply-chain management, a specialty that addresses the logistics of delivering medical supplies and tools.

Another newcomer is nuclear medicine, which uses radioactive isotopes to diagnose disease. The national professional organization has recommended that by 2015, a bachelor-level curriculum blending chemistry, physics, computer technology and math become the standard for nuclear-medicine technologists, who conduct imaging studies and analyze results. Robert Morris University offers the only local four-year program in the field, while CCAC offers a two-year associate-degree program and a one-year certificate program.

As the robotics industry grows in Western Pennsylvania, with more than 60 firms having headquarters in the area, the new field has become a growth area within engineering. This fall, California University of Pennsylvania launches an associate-degree program in robotics-engineering technology. Cal U projects an enrollment increase of about 4 percent for the coming year, capping a 40 percent climb over the past six years.

Information assurance straddles the fields of criminology and computer science. It is a popular course of study at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Initiated with federal grants in 2004, the program is one of about 50 such certified in the country, according to Dennis Giever, a professor of criminology.

“Green” majors have grown from traditional homes in departments of engineering as the definition of sustainability expands to include wind and solar energy, manufacturing, chemistry and agriculture, and transportation. LEED consultants, who offer advice on meeting national standards for energy efficiency, are particularly in demand, says Catherine Sheane, sustainable-design manager at Pittsburgh’s Astorino architects.

As a non-mechanical engineer, she sought an interdisciplinary graduate program in green design. “The program I chose at CMU [a master’s degree in civil and environmental engineering with a focus on green design] was great because it allowed for an interdisciplinary approach to green design – architecture, public policy and engineering,” she says. “This approach is really important because sustainability overlaps many industries and disciplines, and the more ways you know how to apply the green principles, the better off you’ll be.”

CCAC’s Judy Savolskis agrees. “There’s no definitive definition of a green activity,” she says. Recent visits from the U.S. secretaries of labor and energy spotlighted CCAC’s partnerships with local labor unions to train workers for a variety of green jobs, from energy conservation in office-building maintenance (with Local 95 of the Stationary Engineers Union) to installation and operation of wind-farm equipment (with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers).

Apprentice training through CCAC awards college credits so those completing the union-sponsored programs can apply those credits to associate degrees. Local 95 and CCAC are part of the group consulting with the state to create standards for weatherization certification. Workers will soon need that certification; federal stimulus funds to make homes for low-income families more energy-efficient will be awarded to firms whose workers hold the credential.

This fall, Chatham University will restructure its interior-architecture program so that a bachelor’s degree can be earned in three years. The design-oriented course is similar to the interior-design major at IUP, where enrollment has quadrupled in the past five years. Officials speculate that the boom in “shelter” magazines and TV shows has spurred interest in the field, which combines art and business course work.

La Roche College offers every student an opportunity to study abroad, an increasingly popular option among undergraduates. “Study abroad is a major factor for students when choosing a college or university,” says Tom Schaefer, associate vice president of academic affairs. But those programs often come with price tags well beyond the usual semester’s tuition. La Roche’s Beyond the Classroom Program offers one- to three-week programs in the United States or abroad for academic credit, service or ministry. The cost is included in a student’s regular semester fees, eliminating the “can’t afford it” problem.

Despite the proliferation of new technologically oriented majors, liberal-arts offerings continue to thrive. Two-year colleges report they’re a popular choice among those planning to continue study toward a bachelor’s degree – including Penn State-Greater Allegheny’s Darjana Juric. Duquesne also has seen an increase in liberal-arts enrollment, says Paul-James Cukanna, associate provost of enrollment management. “It’s in preparation for professional education, and it’s still the core of most institutions,” he says. “Ninety-two percent of our freshmen say they want to go on to grad or professional school at some point.”

That aspiration is good news for individual careers and the region as a whole. A recent economic study cited by CEOs for Cities, a national network of urban leaders, estimated that a one-point increase in the percentage of residents with bachelor’s degrees would boost the Pittsburgh region’s annual income considerably. If the metropolitan area’s percentage of college graduates grows from the current 27.1 percent to 28.1 percent, personal income would grow by $1.8 billion – proof that higher education is worth its weight in gold.

More Options: Consider Online and Saturday Colleges

If you work full-time, can you go to school full-time? Almost. Local colleges are offering alternatives to the standard 9-5 class schedule, particularly at the grad-school level.

Seton Hill University’s Adult Degree Program schedules some Saturday-only courses for time-pressured students. With five eight-week sessions each year, students can earn up to 12 credit hours per semester.

Carlow University’s Accelerated Program offers five eight-week sessions a year, with classes meeting one evening a week. Eight- and 15-week evening programs are available in social work and education.

At Point Park University, students with associate degrees or equivalent credits can finish a bachelor’s degree in Saturday-only sessions. Earning 12 credits per semester, most can complete the program in two years.

The nursing school at UPMC Shadyside is the only program in town to offer an evening-and-weekend option. Students take courses after 5 p.m. and on Saturdays and Sundays, generally completing the course work leading to a diploma in nursing in four years.

With a traditional strength in teacher education, Indiana University of Pennsylvania offers postgraduate programs for teachers at its Monroeville center. IUP reports that demand for the doctoral program in curriculum and instruction, which prepares educators for the college classroom, has led the university to add a second cohort. A master’s in nursing and M.B.A. program also are offered.

Want to learn online? Approximately 11,500 students are doing that at The Art Institute of Pittsburgh – compared with 3,000 who attend in person. Students can choose among a wide range of degree options, from bachelor of science through associate degrees and diploma programs.

Other Options: Educational Journeys Don’t All Have to Take the Same Road

At 26, Kitty Neidinger, a Beechview resident who’s expecting her second child this month, isn’t your typical college student. She’d tried community college in the past, but in retrospect, says she “wasn’t ready.”

She spent the next few years in the restaurant business, meeting her husband along the way. Last year, she began looking for career training that would fulfill her artistic ambitions and her family responsibilities. After surveying four-year colleges in town, she chose The Art Institute of Pittsburgh, which offers academic bachelor’s and associate degree programs and a strong emphasis on career preparation.

Neidinger is now studying graphic design at AIP, foreseeing freelance opportunities and a flexible work schedule. “If I’m going to spend money for career training, I’m going to do something I’ll enjoy for the rest of my life,” she explains.

For those seeking a fast track to a new job, the Pittsburgh region offers alternatives to the ivied halls of traditional college campuses. With programs ranging from several weeks to a few years, community colleges and other schools offer certificate and diploma programs that can offer new opportunities.

In addition to offering free job training for laid-off workers, Community College of Allegheny County is building on partnerships with a number of trade unions. CCAC can give college credits for the apprenticeship training needed to be eligible for journeyman’s papers.
With the local health care sector booming, CCAC offers training to meet its needs; the school has one of the largest two-year nursing programs in the nation, graduating about 400 students each year with an associate degree. This degree prepares students to take the state licensing examination.

Manufacturing layoffs in the region have prompted other community colleges to lend a hand to workers seeking retraining. A tuition-assistance program at Community College of Beaver County has helped 56 workers get a free semester’s start on a new career. Penn State Fayette offers $99 noncredit refresher courses in math and English to prepare students for the college classroom and is working with the state’s Trade Adjustment Assistance Program to retrain workers laid off from Sony Corp.’s Westmoreland County plant.

Enrolling 3,000 students, AIP also encompasses The International Culinary School at its downtown site. Across town, Pennsylvania Culinary Institute concentrates in cooking and restaurant-management careers; nearby, Pittsburgh Beauty Academy offers courses ranging in length from four to 70 weeks for cosmetologists, stylists and barbers. Aid is available, and there are day, evening and weekend courses.

Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science in East Liberty offers students with 60 college credits or an associate degree a one-year training program to become funeral directors. Joseph Marsaglia, dean of faculty and students, says the majority of students are placed in jobs even before they leave the program, which is offered both in person and online. Because the profession forecasts a decline in qualified personnel as older funeral directors retire, it offers career potential for those with no family background in the business – including women, who make up just over half of those now enrolling.

Christine H. O’Toole, a frequent contributor to Pittsburgh magazine, is the proud parent of a Pitt Panther.

Categories: Community Feature