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Online education in Pennsylvania could get more competitive thanks to state community colleges

Pennsylvania's 14 community colleges on Wednesday will sign a agreement with a New Hampshire university to ease the way for their graduates to enroll in distance education classes for their bachelor's degrees. It will be more affordable than any of Pennsylvania's public college options.

Community College of Philadelphia, one of the 14 colleges that is part of the new agreement.
Community College of Philadelphia, one of the 14 colleges that is part of the new agreement.Read moreSTEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer

Graduates of Pennsylvania’s 14 community colleges can go on to earn their bachelor’s degrees online from a New Hampshire university at a rate that makes it less costly than nearly every other in-state public option, under an agreement signed Wednesday.

The agreement with Southern New Hampshire University was arranged through the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges, a nonprofit umbrella association, and marks the first transfer agreement between all 14 colleges and a four-year university.

“Based on our data, our students will pay a rate lower than nearly any publicly available option in the state,” depending on the student’s program of study and credit load, said Elizabeth Bolden, president of the commission. She said that “is important because higher education affordability is often a barrier for students who want a bachelor’s degree.”

The agreement could pose new competition for colleges in Pennsylvania, including Pennsylvania State University’s World Campus and the 14 universities in the State System of Higher Education, which are exploring a bigger online push.

And it comes at a challenging time for the state system, which has lost nearly 20% of its enrollment since 2010 amid a decrease in high school graduates. (Penn State is not part of the state system.)

» READ MORE: Enrollment falls again across Pennsylvania’s state universities

Southern New Hampshire will give students a 10% tuition reduction and charge $288 per credit hour or $864 per course. Penn State’s World Campus by comparison charges $576 per credit hour for those with fewer than 59 credits and $617 for those with 60 or more credits.

Southern New Hampshire also will transfer up to 90 credits for any degree program and aim to make transferring seamless for students, Bolden said.

That’s different from most other transfer agreements — Pennsylvania’s community colleges already have over 5,000 of them, many with institutions in the state — which tend to be for specific programs and between institutions, she said.

“The simplicity of that message can be very powerful,” Bolden said of the Southern New Hampshire agreement, noting that transferring credits is not always an easy process for students.

The commission on Wednesday morning notified public and private universities in Pennsylvania of the agreement and invited them to partner in similar ways — a move that could start an affordability competition in the state.

The state system issued a statement late Wednesday saying it “has a rich history of community college partnerships that expand educational and career opportunities right here in Pennsylvania for thousands for students. We value our ongoing relationships and constantly seek ways to build on that well established record of success.”

It’s unclear how many students may be interested in taking an online program from an out-of-state university. About 85% of the state’s community college graduates who go on for their bachelor’s remain in Pennsylvania, according to the commission.

But an increasing number of students have been opting for online courses while they are in community college, Bolden said.

In 2018-19, 85,285 students out of about 300,000 took at least one online course, up from 78,637 in 2014-15, according to the commission.

About 1,500 community college graduates from Pennsylvania already are taking online classes from Southern New Hampshire and 166 received degrees last year, Bolden said.

Founded in 1932, Southern New Hampshire has a campus in Manchester with 3,000 students and has been building its online program, which launched in 1995. More than 130,000 students are enrolled online, and the university currently has partnerships with 177 community colleges across the country, said Melanie Plourde, a spokesperson.

Pennsylvania becomes Southern New Hampshire’s second statewide partnership. The university partnered with the Kentucky Community and Technical College System early last year, Plourde said.

The partnership in Pennsylvania drew praise from the national community college association.

“Any time we’re removing barriers to completion for students, it is something we would applaud,” said Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations for the American Association of Community Colleges.

The Pennsylvania commission vetted Southern New Hampshire’s program before agreeing to sign on, Bolden said, and has turned down some other out-of-state suitors who sought similar agreements.

The new agreement will appeal to some students at Delaware County Community College, said Marian McGorry, vice president of academic affairs. Not many take all their classes online, she said, but the majority are taking a mix of online and on-campus classes.

“Since the majority of our students attend part-time now, the flexibility of an online format will be appealing to those students who are working full-time or who have family responsibilities and cannot attend college full-time,” McGorry said.

The college also has a transfer agreement for online programs with Wilmington University in Delaware, she said. As an incentive, Wilmington offers students one free course.