BETHLEHEM, Pa. - When times get tough, the tough get going to community colleges. The schools are more popular than ever, and are now turning to cash-strapped local school districts to help them avoid raising tuition.
It's a classic "Catch 22." The bad economy means demand is soaring for community colleges, but it also means there's not enough money to pay for all those new students.
"We're finding a number of students coming in our direction that perhaps, 10 years ago may not have chosen to do that," said Dr. Mark Erickson, president of Northampton Community College.
Erickson said enrollment has spiked since the 2008 recession.
"During that time, we grew incredibly," he said.
But state funding has dropped and is no longer tied to the number of students enrolled at a school. Plus, tuition remains low -- just $3,570 dollars for a full year.
"Today, our funding mirrors what it was almost two decades ago, in 1994," said Erickson.
So this week, Erickson asked Nazareth's school board for more money. It's one of eight school districts NCC is seeking increases from. The pitch? A quarter of Northampton Co. kids end up at NCC.
"[And] 90 percent of them were either in jobs or they've gone on to the four-year college that they wanted to go onto," said Erickson. "And then, once they're employed, they're giving back to the tax base."
NCC has already cut a million dollars from its budget.
"But those numbers alone are not going to be able to keep the tuition rates as low as we'd love to keep them," Erickson said.
Tuition will rise three percent this fall, but without help, Erickson said there's no more fat left to cut.
"Either we have to cut more programs, which doesn't make sense," he said, "or we have to raise our tuition."
NCC and other schools have foundations to help them out. Private fundraising has helped bridge some of the funding gap.
Allentown, PA 18102