When Jon Jay DeTemple came to Bryn Mawr to assume the presidency of Harcum College in 2007, he saw a lot of "under-the-hood problems."
Only around 800 students were enrolled at the two-year private college when DeTemple arrived. The financial aid system needed fixing.
"They knew they had some problems here," DeTemple said. "There was a question about whether [Harcum] was going to be able to make it or not."
DeTemple did an internal overhaul of staff and management, and this past spring, Harcum experienced its largest enrollment yet with 1,500 students. By Harcum's 100th birthday in 2015, DeTemple said he wants enrollment to reach 2,015. Meanwhile, campus improvements such as a $1.2-million library project are underway.
While part of Harcum's growth over the past five years can be attributed to an increased focus on raising its presence in surrounding counties, it's also part of a favorable trend: two-year colleges across the nation are experiencing increases in enrollment.
Between 2007 and 2011, enrollment at community colleges and other institutions that award associate degrees has increased by 20 percent, Norma Kent of the American Association for Community Colleges said.
"When you compare the amount of a two-year college to the amount of a four-year university, it's a very good value proposition when people are struggling," Kent said.
A semester at Harcum costs $9,950, less than Harcum's collegiate Main Line neighbors, including Bryn Mawr College and Villanova University. Though a small percentage of students live on campus, commuters from the surrounding Philadelphia, Montgomery, Delaware, Bucks and Chester counties make up a majority of the student body.
"You look around us, and there's $40,000," DeTemple said. "We're different."
DeTemple has also focused on improving programs at the school. One of Harcum's rules: all majors offered must lead to a job, DeTemple said.
After he arrived, DeTemple did away with the psychology degree. "You can't really get a job with a two-year psych degree," he said.
Harcum also brought back a program for occupational therapy assistants. DeTemple is in the process of ensuring every program at Harcum becomes accredited. The allied health programs already are, and the college recently completed a review of its early childhood education program.
Though DeTemple briefly worried the importance of the arts would fade with such a health-care-heavy focus – he then made it a requirement for students to take an art class – investing in Harcum's allied health programs mirror national trends.
"Associate degrees can be the entry-level credential for some very much in-demand fields, and many of them are in the health care field," Kent said. "You can practice nursing with an associate's degree. There are more than 200 health care specialties."
An estimated 863,000 associate degrees were awarded in the U.S. during the 2010-2011 academic year, according to the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics. The most popular fields of study are business management and marketing, health professions and the liberal arts and sciences, general studies and humanities.
As of now, Harcum does not keep track of the number of graduates who find employment following graduation, but Joanne Mandell, 37, said she got a nursing job after graduating in May 2010 partly because of Harcum's connections. A few of Mandell's professors were adjuncts that later wrote her letters of recommendation for a position at Riddle Hospital, where she now works the night shift.
Mandell, who lives in Newtown Square and is a mother of four, said she never realized that with an associate's degree, she could've been a nurse 10 years ago. Years before attending Harcum for nursing, Mandell finished a two-year program to become a medical assistant.
Though the 27-year-old is now focused on one field, Fitzgerald said his game plan wasn't always clear. After attending Bloomsburg University for three years while majoring in secondary education, Fitzgerald decided to re-evaluate what he wanted to do.
"I felt like I had to go to a four-year school and get a degree," Fitzgerald said. "But there were people who I graduated with who'd already gone to school [for their associate degree], were working and making money."
Fitzgerald he wished the option of attending a two-year college had been more widely discussed toward the end of high school.