Getting a free education

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Do you want to go to school for free?

Depending on your situation, there are post-secondary opportunities that won't break the bank.

For those who meet the eligibility requirements, free education is available in a wide variety of fields -- from digitizing medical records to advanced manufacturing.

To be sure, most people don't get postsecondary education for free. And many of the free programs meet only limited needs or circumstances and serve limited numbers of students.

In many cases, students must apply for financial aid and use any grants they receive through the traditional process. For students with financial need, federal and state grants can bring down the price.

But there are programs beyond that traditional state and federal aid that can take the financial worry out of the next step for those who are eligible.

For Pittsburgh residents who graduated from city public high schools in 2008 or later and meet certain academic, attendance and residency requirements, the Pittsburgh Promise offers postsecondary scholarships for in-state education -- up to $5,000 each year for four years, increasing to up to $10,000 a year for four years for the Class of 2012.

The amounts are large enough to cover community college costs and ultimately will be large enough to cover tuition and more at State System of Higher Education schools.

Free postsecondary education also is offered at apprenticeship schools by 17 local trade unions.

The programs are competitive; only about 400 are expected this year, compared with about 1,000 in a strong year, said Jason Fincke, executive director of the Builders Guild of Western Pennsylvania.

The various union schools take applications at different times of the year. They require a written test -- which can include algebra, geometry and a bit of trigonometry as well as reading comprehension -- and an interview.

Applicants must meet other requirements as well, including having a high school diploma or GED and an available car to drive to work.

Through the state CareerLink offices, the government will pay for appropriate education for certain residents if they need further training to find employment

This applies to dislocated workers and some low-income adults.

"It's not just a walk in, 'Hey, I want to go to truck driving.' We want you to make an informed choice," said Jim Hann, site administrator of the Allegheny East office of CareerLink, "We don't want to set you up for failure."

To be accepted into postsecondary education, prospective students usually have to have a high school diploma or earn a GED.

For those who don't have either one, some places, including the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council, offer free classes to prepare candidates for the GED.

The literacy council also has classes aimed at preparing those with high school diplomas or GEDs for skills needed to succeed in postsecondary education.

All four area community colleges have some programs offered without participants having to pay tuition from their own pockets, including:

• Community College of Allegheny County: a Young Adult Empowerment Program for high-priority careers; scholarships for volunteer firefighters; program on mechatronics, a manufacturing field; health information technology program which focuses on digitization of medical records; tuition waivers for dislocated workers; and biotechnology training.

• Community College of Beaver County: broadband technology training, tuition assistance for laid-off workers, and a New Choices program aimed at helping dislocated workers and displaced homemakers back on their feet.

• Butler County Community College: Free credit classes for county residents age 62 or older; noncredit classes in English as a Second Language; reading and math refreshers; personal finance workshop; and workplace and computer skills workshop.

• Westmoreland County Community College: Marcellus Shale roustabout training and scholarships for volunteer firefirghters,

Education writer Eleanor Chute: or 412-263-1955. First Published February 10, 2011 5:00 AM


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