Push on to bring adults back to the classroom

Opening just months before the worst recession in decades took hold, Community College of Allegheny County's West Hills Center has become a measure of the Pittsburgh region's success in retraining its adult workforce.

So much so that President Barack Obama himself took to the center's auto bay Wednesday, proclaiming the suburban facility and its programs a national model. "You're doing something right," he said.

But Pennsylvania as a whole has struggled mightily to entice older learners without college degrees back to the classroom. By some measures, the state has ranked nearly dead last nationally.

The long-standing problem has become a subject of heightened emphasis among policy-makers in recent months, not only because of the skills those workers could offer employers if better trained, but also because those learners might help Pennsylvania campuses offset declines in the number of traditional-age high school graduates.

Attracting those adults has become increasingly important, not just to two-year schools, but to the state-owned and state-related universities.

"They're all doing it," said state Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, a CCAC trustee who listened to the speeches by Mr. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. "A lot of schools across the commonwealth are struggling with enrollment issues and finding this as a way they can fill up their buildings, fill up their space and provide for an educational experience in the workforce area."

The CCAC center in North Fayette is a merger of two previous college facilities -- its Airport West Center in Robinson and its technology center on Neville Island. The facility opened in 2007 and is a source of pride given those who have finished associate degrees and certificates, campus officials say.

A "midnight welding course" that debuted at the center in 2009 reflected not just demand for those jobs but also the daytime classroom space crunch at many two-year colleges that ramped up their programming to retrain workers who lost their jobs in the bad economy.

The Monday-through-Thursday program met from 11 p.m. to 3 a.m.

Tim Wright, 46, a West Hills Center graduate from Clairton, was beaming Wednesday as he stood outside the facility, and not just because the president had mentioned him by name in his speech.

In nine months beginning in 2010, he finished certificate programs in welding and mechatronics, an area of advanced manufacturing, transforming him from a laborer into a $30-an-hour shift utility mechanic with better advancement prospects.

"I was working at the time, swing shift, and I was able to accomplish that. So I'm proud of myself for that," he said. "It's awesome."

Pennsylvania has made gains enrolling younger adults, including those just out of high school. But the nation as a whole has had difficulty attracting older learners, and the problem in Pennsylvania was especially pronounced, even before the recession.

This state ranked 49th in the percentage of residents 25 to 49 years old without a bachelor's degree who were involved in undergraduate study, according to 2009 federal data. Just 129,000 of the approximately 2.9 million Pennsylvanians lacking bachelor's degrees in that age range -- or 4.5 percent -- were in degree or certificate programs.

That put this state behind Louisiana and ahead of only New Hampshire, according to the 2009 US. Census and Education Department data assembled by the Boulder, Colo.-based National Center for Higher Education Management Systems. The national average was 7 percent.

Experts have cited a range of reasons for Pennsylvania's poor showing, from cost pressures in a high-tuition state to the legacy of steel and other blue-collar industries that used to offer the likelihood of decent-paying jobs without a college degree

"Pennsylvania has a long history of its population going to high school and then going to the mines and going to the mills," said Mary Frances Archey, CCAC's vice president for student success and completion.

When those jobs went away, she said, "It took the people of this region a long time to realize that those jobs weren't coming back."

Some have also noted that Pennsylvania's community college system, created in the 1960s, was never finished. It envisioned 28 community and technical colleges, but instead has 14.

That has left many residents, especially in rural areas, far removed from low-cost campuses. Kentucky, with one-third of Pennsylvania's population, has more community colleges.

Ms. Archey said she believes Pennsylvania is making strides with older learners of late, in part because of programs like those at West Hills.

Bill Schackner: bschackner@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1977 and on Twitter: @BschacknerPG.

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