Central Penn College recently announced that it will offer a year of free housing to all incoming freshmen and transfer students who choose to live on campus.
The school, which offers two- and four-year degree and certificate programs in East Pennsboro Township, Cumberland County, said the program is a way to use dormant resources to help address the affordability of a post-secondary education and retain students.
Dr. Linda Fedrizzi-Williams, Central Penn College president, said the school’s residential population is small and has been declining in recent years. “When we had a meeting to ask why students were leaving, affordability was the No. 1 reason,” she said.
Eighty-five percent of the college’s students work full-time. “If they are constantly trying to think about how to pay for housing, it’s impossible for them to focus on academics,” Fedrizzi-Williams said. “It felt like a moral obligation.”
Plus, the college has unused housing units it is paying to maintain, so putting that excess capacity to use seemed like a smart idea. “Technically, it’s not costing us anything extra,” Fedrizzi-Williams said.
Central Penn College operates on four accelerated 11-week terms each year. The free-housing program will be offered starting with new students who enroll in the summer session in 2019. Students who start then and remain enrolled could save as much as $5,800, while those who enroll beginning with the fall term could save $4,350. Tuition for the 2019-20 academic year has also been frozen at the 2018-19 cost of $18,718.
Fedrizzi-Williams said even if the initiative only brings in 10-15 new students, the college will break even because of being able to use vacant space it already pays for. If the program attracts more takers than anticipated, the college plans to shift upperclassmen from its 226 shared suites to apartments on campus to make room.
“The biggest thing we are hoping is to increase our retention,” she said. “What is contributing to the college affordability crisis is that students are acquiring debt without a degree, so we need to get them off to a strong start so they stay here for a second or maybe additional years.”
Living on campus at least for the first year also familiarizes new students with a centralized student success center where they can access support services such as career counselors and a learning center.
Other Central Pennsylvania colleges are catching on to the need for solutions to affordability issues.
Like Central Penn, Elizabethtown College has frozen tuition for the upcoming school year. The Lancaster County institution also announced in September its plans to cut tuition more than 30 percent for 2019-20.
Harrisburg University’s tuition has remained flat for the past five years, according to Steve Infanti, associate vice president, communications & marketing, for the downtown Harrisburg college.
A range of financial aid options – other than debt-inducing student loans — also ease the burden of a costly education for other midstate college students.
Messiah College in Cumberland County offers an income-share agreement as an alternative to student loans for new and current students who meet financial-need criteria. The college provides money to cover a portion of the student’s college expenses — up to $5,000 per year — in exchange for 3 to 3.5 percent of his or her future income post-graduation for a set period of time.
At Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology in Lancaster County, more than half of students attend under a grant that covers tuition, room, board, books and tools for those eligible for federal Pell grants, according to a school official.
The two-year residential technical college offers programs in technology, advanced manufacturing and construction and nearly half of its students live in dorms on either its main or branch campuses, both in downtown Lancaster.
At Harrisburg University, all undergraduates receive scholarships that range from $6,000 to $20,000.
“Whatever colleges can do to minimize excessive cost for students is a great effort,” Infanti said.