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By Paul Bradley  /  
2009 April 8 - 12:00 am

Opening Their Doors Wide

The last place Michael Paffrath expected to find himself at age 42 was inside a community college classroom, struggling with algebra and working alongside classmates young enough to be his children. 

Until last summer, the suburban Philadelphia man had a solid career and steady income. He toiled for a dozen years as a title researcher, trekking to county courthouses, combing through land records, helping feed the real estate boom that seemed like it would never end.

“I worked every day from morning to night,” he said. “It seemed like the work would never stop.”

But now the boom has gone bust. The firm that hired and trained Paffrath — who has only a high-school education — merged with another company. The new company then was swallowed by a larger firm. Staff was gradually reduced in a series of cost-cutting measures.

Last August, Paffrath got his pink slip.

“I didn’t make the cut,” he said. Months of searching for a new job produced nothing more than three job interviews and a mound of frustration.

Now, he is trying to reinvent himself. Thanks to a program under which he can attend classes tuition-free at Bucks County Community College, Paffrath has set his sights on earning an associate degree and becoming a paralegal.

“Nothing is certain,” he said. “But the paralegal program is really good.

“I don’t think there is going be  a shortage of paralegal jobs.”

Paffrath is among about 400 people who have taken advantage of the Tuition Assistance Program at Bucks. Eligible students can take up to 30 credit hours on a space-available basis tuition-free, representing a savings of about $3,000.

According to college President James Linksz, the program represents an effort by the college to reach out to its community in its hour of need.

 “In Bucks County we had numerous members of our community who were affected by the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the twin towers,” he said. “We created a small window for family members to go back to school tuition-free in 2002. Last fall, we thought it would be a good time to help our community through an equally devastating and unplanned disruption in their lives.”

Reaction has been overwhelming. At the initial orientation, about 800 displaced workers showed up.

“It really surprised us to learn just how many people are affected by the current economic circumstances,” Linksz said.

Other Efforts

Across the country, community colleges are undertaking similar efforts to come to the aid of displaced workers. Long distinguished by their open enrollment policies, community colleges are now opening their doors as never before, offering free classes to those whose jobs have disappeared in the shrinking economy.

Pennsylvania has been among the most aggressive states in offering tuition waivers to displaced workers. Across the state, 10 of 14 community colleges are voluntarily offering tuition assistance programs to the unemployed, assisting about 1,100 people.

Montgomery County Community College is allowing laid-off workers to take up to 12 credits without paying tuition. More than 70 students have registered for a total of 543 credit hours for the spring 2009 semester. The most popular areas of study are business and accounting, computer science, engineering, education, health sciences and liberal arts.

“It is our community-based economic stimulus,” said college President Karen Stout.

In New Jersey, community colleges and state colleges and universities are required by law to offer tuition waivers to workers who have been laid off. In 2008, nearly 2,600 state residents attended one of the state’s 19 community colleges using tuition waivers. The state waived about $2.2 million in tuition payments, according to the council.

“New Jersey’s unemployment rate has risen to 7.1 percent, and our community colleges realize that we are going through tough economic times,” said Ronald Withers, chairman of the New Jersey Council of County Colleges. “We are committed to serving as the road to economic recovery by helping residents get back into the workforce.”

College leaders report that the tuition-waiver programs are booming.

Oakton (Ill.) Community College was overwhelmed after it announced its tuition-waiver program in December, said college President Margaret Lee.

“The response has been unbelievable,” she said. “Once it was publicized in the media, we got calls from all over the country. We were getting phone calls every three minutes.”

The tuition-waiver programs share numerous features. People have to live in the region served by the college they want to attend. They must prove they are unemployed and looking for work. They are required to apply for financial aid. Like any other student, prospective students must take assessment tests to measure their readiness for college-level work. Students also have to buy their own books and cover any applicable fees.

But administrators also are free to craft their programs to reflect the peculiar characteristics of their colleges.

Oakton Community College, for example, located in an affluent area north of Chicago, will waive tuition for up to 12 credit hours for four specific programs: computer diagnostics, computer programming, Microsoft certification and “green” marketing preparation.

Like other colleges, the college worked with the local Workforce Investment Board to identify areas of high job growth, Lee said.

“We have employers who have told is they are ready for these workers,” she said.

Different Approach

At Normandale Community College in Minnesota, President Joe Opatz took a different approach. The college surveyed deans to determine which courses had excess capacity and came up with a list of about 80 courses that are being offered tuition-free to the unemployed. Some 269 students signed up for the spring semester.

“We’re essentially a liberal arts college,” Opatz said. “We wanted to offer a breadth of courses; we did not want to define where the next jobs will be. We thought that different people had different needs, and we wanted to make it available to all.”

For colleges, the tuition-waiver programs represent a low-cost effort to reach out and help communities being battered by the economic downturn.

“There are people in our community who have real needs,” Linksz said. “These are people who have supported us in the past, and now we’re trying to support them.”

Said Stout: “The goodwill the program has created is well worth the tuition that has been waived. The program has really strengthened our partnerships with the business community.”

Costs of the tuition program are minimal, college leaders said. Colleges are not hiring new faculty, but merely tapping into existing capacity.

But for many colleges, capacity is just the problem. Colleges around the country are caught between skyrocketing enrollment and shrinking financial resources. When classes are filled, students are being turned away or placed on waiting lists.

“We are really being squeezed,” said Thomas Leary, president of Luzerne (Pa.) County Community College. “We are trying to hold on to the financial resources that we have. We really need to expand what we can do.”

Still, Leary said the college is considering expanding its tuition waiver program, which now applies to the current semester and the summer semester.

“We’ll extend it for as long as we can,” he said. “We will come back each semester and determine how we can move forward. We can’t expect it to continue indefinitely. But in my mind, we have to be prepared to respond. We have an obligation to take certain risks. We’re giving people some hope.”

Valerie Anderson is among the 90 students who registered for free classes at Luzerne. The 39-year-old mother of two had a good job, rising to executive director of the Luzerne County Chamber of Commerce over eight years. But she lost her job when the chamber merged with another.

Changing Careers

 

Now, Anderson, who has a bachelor’s degree in communications from the New York Institute of Technology, is changing careers. She is back in school trying to earn her teacher’s certificate. She wants to teach middle school.

“I was downsized,” she said. “I always had teaching in the back of my mind, so this was a great opportunity. I thought it might be fate. It all kind of fell into place. The tuition program certainly accelerated the process for me.”

Anderson hopes to finish her studies next year.

So does Paffrath, though he believes it might take longer. He is enrolled in  a political science class and a paralegal course in addition to algebra.

After two decades away from the classroom, school is sometimes a struggle, he said.

“It’s tough sometimes, but I welcome the challenge,” he said. “The tuition waiver has really helped. I am really grateful for that.” 

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