The Community College of Allegheny County may have driven students away with hefty, periodic tuition hikes, a county audit released Wednesday said.
In a review running from 2008 to 2011, the county controller's office found little to criticize in CCAC's $140 million annual budget.
But an erratic pattern of tuition increases -- flat one year, up 11 percent the next -- has made it difficult for students to know what they'll be paying from semester to semester, Controller Chelsa Wagner said.
"If a family or student is going to see an increase of 11 percent one year, that may be something that's not affordable," she said. "It also might discourage them from staying invested in CCAC."
In 2006, 2009, 2010 and 2012, tuition stayed flat. But those years alternated with sharp increases: 3 percent in 2007, 4 percent in 2008 and 11 percent in 2011.
The audit suggested a regular increase of 2 percent a year.
In a letter to Ms. Wagner, CCAC vice president Joyce Breckenridge said the college knows regular but reliable tuition increases are better for students. But it's hard to eliminate sporadic increases, she wrote, when government funding to the college has become sporadic as well.
And college leaders aren't sure automatic increases are a good idea. State Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, a CCAC trustee, said automatically raising tuition every year would make administrators less likely to take a critical look at savings in their own departments.
"I'm not 100 percent convinced we should be increasing tuition for the sake of increasing tuition," he said. "We have to work with what we have and go from there."
Allegheny County contributed $25 million to the community college's budget last year. Since 2011, the county has agreed to increase its contribution by at least 2 percent annually, which the audit said should help moderate tuition hikes.
The controller's office also targeted fundraising, saying CCAC should apply for more matching federal grants and refrain from putting restrictions on incoming donations.
The audit singled out a recent $400,000 donation that originally came without strings but was later restricted to the college's West Hills facility at the administration's request.
The audit's suggestions include a money-making idea familiar to any parent who has shelled out $40 for a college sweatshirt: Beautify the campus bookstore.
Usually a monument to merchandising elsewhere, the bookstore at CCAC was described somewhat bleakly as "dark and uninviting" by audit staff.
CCAC beat them to the punch: Administrators have already contracted a private firm to spruce things up.
Andrew McGill: email@example.com or 412-263-1497.