Challenged by college cost and access, students in rural Pa. find tech-based alternative

The interactive map above shows all of Pennsylvania’s state, state-related and community colleges.

Kathy Wells started her career early. She didn’t get a chance to go to college after graduating from high school in rural, Northwestern Pennsylvania.

In her words, she grew up in a “large family, small area.”  

“Basically, you work,” Wells laughed. “You don’t go to school.”

Now 48, Wells is an administrative assistant for the Forest Area School District in Forest County — one of the most remote and scarcely populated areas in the state.

A few years ago, she decided she wanted to get an associate degree. But she faced an obstacle common in Northwestern Pennsylvania — where in some towns you could go more than 70 miles before finding a college campus.

That’s when Wells learned about Northern Pennsylvania Regional College, a school launched two years ago that’s out to change that.

“It’s a challenge, but I’m enjoying it,” said Wells, who’s focusing on business administration. “The course that I’m doing right now — since I’ve been in basically the accounting field my whole life — I’m understanding what I’m learning, and it’s benefiting more of my ability to perform at my job now.”

Kathy Wells, of Tionesta Pa., is working on an associates degree in business administration at the Northern Pennsylvania Regional College. (Photo Courtesy of Kathy Wells)
Kathy Wells of Tionesta Pa. (Photo Courtesy of Kathy Wells)

The two-year regional college differs from typical schools with its “nontraditional delivery system.” Instead of having one central campus where all students go, there’s a network of satellite classrooms in schools or libraries across the region, where students and instructors connect through real-time video conferencing.

With powerful backers in the General Assembly, including Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, the school hopes to be an answer to the two big obstacles rural students in Pennsylvania face: cost and access.

Nationally, rural students attend and complete four-year colleges at lower rates than their urban and suburban counterparts. Studies from the National Center for Education Statistics show just 29 percent of rural students between 18 to 24 enrolled in colleges or universities in 2015. All other groups from cities, suburban areas and towns have enrollment rates greater than 40 percent.

In Pennsylvania, as the map above helps illustrate, a large swath of the Northwest is a traditional higher-ed dead zone. With industry declines and steady population loss, the area has had a hard time attracting a traditional college institution.

One of the options near Wells, University of Pittsburgh’s Titusville campus, is downsizing and rebranding itself as a training hub.

A different kind of school

During a recent open house at the college’s administration office in Warren, technology specialist Gary Sawtelle showcased how multiple classrooms interact with each other by connecting to the video stream of an English composition course.

“This is the instructor’s site. He’s using the smartboard behind him,” Sawtelle said. “These little screens down here are the classrooms sites where students are connecting.”

Attendants watch the showcase of a live video conference during an open house event at the Northern Pennsylvanian Regional College in Warren, Pa. (Photo by Min Xian/Keystone Crossroads)
Attendants watch the showcase of a live video conference during an open house event at the Northern Pennsylvanian Regional College in Warren, Pa. (Photo by Min Xian/Keystone Crossroads)

The college now has 18 classroom locations across nine northern counties, including Warren, McKean, Potter and Erie.

For Wells, that convenience is key.

To stay disciplined with her studies, she prefers a physical environment over an online program. And since the regional college has a classroom location right at the school district, she doesn’t have to travel for many of her classes.

“I usually just stay here and do my homework or do reading or whatever between work life and school life,” Wells said. “I’m able to organize my schedule like that.”

The college’s founding president, Joseph Nairn, said technology-fueled satellite classrooms also make the college more affordable.

Joe Nairn is the founding president of the Northern Pennsylvania Regional College. (Photo by Min Xian/Keystone Crossroads)
Joe Nairn is the founding president of the Northern Pennsylvania Regional College. (Min Xian/Keystone Crossroads)

“What we’ve taken away is all of that additional expense that students often incur. We’re not supporting a residence hall system. We’re not supporting a food service. We don’t have a gymnasium or physical plant to manage,” Nairn said.

Kai Schafft, with the Center on Rural Education and Communities at Pennsylvania State University, said the rising cost of college tuition can be daunting for many families, especially those in rural areas that have seen jobs and opportunities leave.

“If you couple that with the lack of physical access to higher education, it means that, logistically, it’s just more difficult for rural students to go to college or university, because of the distance they have to travel and the costs that are associated,” Schafft said.

Having a more affordable college option means a lot to Margo Loutzenhiser. She’s currently a senior at the Warren Area High School in Warren County who is doing a dual-enrollment program at the regional college.

Loutzenhiser pays $60 per credit hour at NPRC for dual enrollment, about one-seventh of what she would’ve paid for a similar program that St. Bonaventure University offers in Warren.

“This is way cheaper than that,” she said.

For regular students, NPRC costs $185 per credit hour.

Clarion University and Edinboro University are the closest state schools to the area. Including tuition and fees, Pennsylvania residents would pay $409 per credit hour for online programs at Clarion, and $446 at Edinboro.

Loutzenhiser said it’s also easy to learn using technology. And, she added, just because the structure at the regional college is different, doesn’t mean it’s less of a college experience.

“You can see them, you can interact with them, you can talk to them just like you normally would. [It’s] just that you have to press the button,” said Loutzenhiser, who will attend Gannon University in Erie in the fall as a women’s basketball recruit.

Margo Loutzenhiser is a senior at the Warren Area High School. She's taking dual enrollment classes to get ahead. (Photo courtesy of Margo Loutzenhiser)
Margo Loutzenhiser is a senior at the Warren Area High School. She’s taking dual-enrollment classes to get ahead. (Photo courtesy of Margo Loutzenhiser)

The regional college was established by the Pennsylvania Department of Education in 2017. Nairn, its president, said it’s on track to become an accredited institution by the end of this year. At this time, students earn degrees and credits through Gannon, a partner of the college.  It currently enrolls 83 students and expects 150 next year.

Schafft cautioned that, while programs like this could attract more rural students, the question of whether students can use their education in the region remains open.

“There are some questions about the match between the degrees that students can acquire and the job opportunities in their home places, and whether these are degrees that can actually be used in the home environment,” Schafft said.

Kai Schafft directs Penn State's Center on Rural Education and Communities. He cautioned that there are open questions to whether rural students can utilize their higher education in the region. (Photo by Min Xian/Keystone Crossroads)
Kai Schafft directs Penn State’s Center on Rural Education and Communities. He cautioned that there are open questions to whether rural students can utilize their higher education in the region. (Min Xian/Keystone Crossroads)

If rural students are not able to utilize their degrees in the region, he said, it’s likely that they will leave to seek employment, accelerating rural population loss.

At least for Kathy Wells, her education is helping her right where she is — empowering her to take on more responsibilities at work.

“Being able to get the degree at this later stage is actually kind of a life-building experience,” she said.

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